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It’s That Man Again

Nietzsche returns! John Lippitt reviews F.A. Lea The Tragic Philosopher: Friedrich Nietzsche (Athlone Press, 1993) and Keith M. May Nietzsche on the Struggle between Knowledge and Wisdom (St. Martin’s Press, 1993).

Imagine, time-travellers, that you find yourself transported back to 1957. Sputnik I, the world’s first satellite, has recently been launched; the first stereo discs are being marketed; and Buddy Holly’s first single, That’ll Be The Day, is just out. As you look around you at this partly familiar, partly alien world, one thing strikes you as very different from how it was back in 1995. You’ve guessed it: the Nietzsche scholarship.

The decision by Athlone Press to reissue a book on Nietzsche originally published in 1957 may initially seem bizarre. Interest in Nietzsche has rocketed since the fifties, and any book published then is going to make a rather curious read for anyone familiar with contemporary Nietzsche scholarship. What? A book on Nietzsche whose index lacks any reference to such leading interpreters as Heidegger, Derrida and Deleuze? Given the burgeoning amount of recent work on Nietzsche, one might ask, what can possibly be learned from a book almost forty years old?

And yet this remains a surprisingly decent book. The publisher’s blurb describes it as “intended for the general reader rather than the specialist”, and it serves this purpose well. It does justice to its subject, making Nietzsche sound as exciting a read as he is. Once one gets used to time-travel, and the absence of many of the usual names, one comes rather to enjoy not being expected to have swallowed six impossible Heideggerian or post-structuralist texts before breakfast. Thus, to the student coming to Nietzsche for the first time, Lea can be recommended as a good introduction; he is a fairly easy read, and has an enthusiasm and passion for his subject that is itself highly Nietzschean.

The approach to Nietzsche’s thought is chronological, and one of the things at which Lea is best is weaving in aspects of Nietzsche’s biography to the development of his thought. Expositions of Nietzsche’s texts are thereby combined with the standard biographical information – the early death of his father; being brought up in a household of women; the strength of his Christian belief as a child – but also less familiar snippets. I was surprised, for instance, to learn of the high reputation Nietzsche enjoyed as a teacher during his brief academic career at the University of Basle. According to Lea, “his lectures were said to be as enthralling as a French novel. Indeed, when it became known that he had refused an appointment elsewhere, his students wished to hold a torchlight procession in his honour” (p.54). From the passion and fury of so much of Nietzsche’s prose, one could be forgiven for having imagined his teaching to have been rather like that of Wittgenstein, during his brief inglorious career as a school-master; lashing out at pupils who did not get the point. Lea is also good on the subtle interplay of the influences of Schopenhauer and Wagner on the early Nietzsche. All this is conveyed with an affecting enthusiasm and energy, which attempts to portray Nietzsche’s life as an intellectual adventure story.

None of this is to deny that the book certainly has faults. Evidence of its age is shown by the use of the translations edited by Oscar Levy, long since superseded and improved upon; the Foreword rather desperately comments that, though it is “long out of print, and scandalously inaccurate, it is still the best edition available” (p.10). In the Preface to the second edition (1972), the author comments that when the book was written “Nietzsche was virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, except in caricature” (p.7). (This, remember, was about a decade after the Nazi distortion of Nietzsche which led to Bertrand Russell’s smug announcement, in the History of Western Philosophy, that followers of Nietzsche had “had their innings”. The spectacular inaccuracy of Russell’s prediction – demonstrated by the great contemporary interest in and impact of Nietzsche – shows how unwise it would have been to have gone to the great logician for a tip on the 3.30 at Kempton.) Caricatures of Nietzsche still abound; but the number and range of caricaturists has multiplied, and the Nietzsches they produce are no longer likely to be wearing jackboots and singing verses of ‘Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles’ in between biting the heads off babies.

But ‘age’ is not the only problem. Sometimes, highly informative exposition is followed up with highly disappointing critique; as, for instance, when Nietzsche’s educational elitism (in ‘On the Future of our Educational Institutions’) is blamed on the influence of Schopenhauer, and that fact that the latter “was, to put it mildly, an intellectual snob” (p.61). (This, ironically, makes the book seem curiously upto- date, mirroring the outraged response to Nietzsche of so many politically correct contemporary undergraduates; the view that any whiff of antiegalitarianism is obviously a heinous insult to all right-thinking people.)

Also, Lea is in places curiously naive about certain key concepts such as truth; exemplified in his assertion that his concern about Nietzsche’s ideal is “whether it is right” (p.8). This begs all kinds of questions about the nature of truth, not least Nietzsche’s challenge to consider the motives behind ‘the will to truth’, and the issue of why we value truth rather than ‘untruth’.

But on the positive side, one aspect of Lea’s account to which special attention should be drawn is that which led reviewers of the original edition to label this a ‘Christian interpretation’ of Nietzsche. While some of his claims seem highly overblown (for instance that Nietzsche’s “interpretation of history, and therefore of his own role in history, stands or falls with his representation of Jesus” (p.335)), Lea does draw attention to interesting parallels between Nietzsche and the mystical tradition in Christianity. It is true that there is a too-common tendency to place Nietzsche in a box marked ‘atheist’, and thereby to overlook the profoundly ‘religious’ and mystical dimension of his thought. (That this is so is evidenced by the fact that Joan Stambaugh felt the need to call her recent book, on ‘Nietzsche the poetic mystic’, The Other Nietzsche). Nietzsche’s influence on important twentieth century theologians, such as Bonhoeffer, Buber and Tillich, is often not realised; and in our postmodern age, the thought of Anglicanism’s most controversial philosopher-priest, Don Cupitt, is heavily Nietzschean in influence. The mystical dimension of Nietzsche, and the potential for dialogue between him and postmodern religion, deserves far more attention in contemporary Nietzsche studies, and it is interesting to see Lea picking up on the first part, at least, in the fifties. (Readers with sensitive noses may smell a reviewer working in this field himself; their nostrils will not have deceived them.)

So although the availability of this book in paperback will not set the Nietzsche world alight, Athlone are to be commended for making available to students and others new to Nietzsche a highly readable and accessible introduction which has aged better than many in their late thirties.

In our second book, Keith May touches on an area relevant to an issue with which Philosophy Now has concerned itself in the past; namely the debate (often presented as something like ‘the analytic-continental divide’) as to what philosophy’s task really is. May is concerned with Nietzsche’s view of “the struggle between Wissenschaft and Weisheit (‘wisdom’) exhibited in the ancient Greek philosophers”. Wissenschaft is normally translated as ‘science’, but means any form of disciplined, systematic learning; ‘wisdom’ is “the activity which the first philosophers actively loved” (p.x), and crucially involves the self, being described at one point as “fidelity to one’s ‘truthful’ images” (p.171). The point seems to be that all ‘public’ knowledge, to be of existential worth, needs to be appropriated for oneself; therein lies the ‘struggle’. May offers some contentious readings, such as an excessive focus upon a metaphysical interpretation of the will to power, but provides clear accounts of Nietzsche’s connection with various Greek thinkers – the pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plato, Euripides, and Aristotle. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche aims to show how Socrates is a “turning point…of world history”, in that through him, the ‘tragic’ view of the world which Nietzsche so admires is replaced with a new one: that of ‘theoretical man’; a view according to which “rational thought, guided by causality, can penetrate to the depths of being”. Nietzsche’s interest in the pre-Socratics – echoed by later thinkers such as Heidegger – and the idea that “we must overcome even the Greeks” is largely concerned with, in May’s words, “regarding Socrates’ methods as merely methods, useful and fruitful at times but far from the entire basis of philosophy” (p.152). Contrast this with the common view that “Western philosophy began with Socrates”, echoed in, to take one example, Antony Flew’s Dictionary of Philosophy, which claims that “much pre-Socratic material is not in any strict sense philosophical”. One of the things that is being questioned by Nietzsche is this assumption that we all know what philosophy is, and should just get on with doing it. This is a question of great contemporary importance, given its significance to the ‘end of philosophy’ debate, and the increasing dialogue between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ traditions.

© John Lippitt 1995

John Lippitt is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire and organiser of ‘Nietzsche and the Future of the Human’, a conference due to take place there in September. (For further details see page 9)

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