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Nietzsche Studies (I)

H. James Birx looks at some books on Nietzsche.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) has had an enormous influence on modern thought, particularly inspiring those individuals of mythical creativity and poetic vision in film, music, philosophy and literature. In his scholarly and fascinating work Zarathustra’s Children, Raymond Furness focuses on seven authors: Theodore Däubler, Ludwig Derleth, Ludwig Klages, Alfred Mombert, Christian Morgenstern, Rudolf Pannwitz and Alfred Schuler. During the early decades of the twentieth century, these little-known and eccentric German thinkers wrote about life and nature in terms of pervasive vitalism and monistic pantheism. Their romantic imaginations excelled in the use of mystical symbols and cosmic images to express the sublimity of reality.

With insightful anecdotes and vivid summaries, Furness has written an excellent book that clearly demonstrates the unusual inspiration of Thus Spake Zarathustra on the epic works of these authors who, like the philosopher Nietzsche himself, attempted to transcend the values of their times. As a result of his exceptional research, Furness has filled a lacuna in modern Nietzschean studies.

In August 1881, at Sils-Maria in Switzerland (“6000 feet beyond man and time”), the solitary wanderer Nietzsche came upon a towering pyramidal rock that triggered in the philosopher’s mind his major idea of the eternal recurrence of the same. Nietzsche was elated over this concept of both metaphysical and ethical importance, as he saw it giving meaning and purpose to human existence in a godless but cyclical universe.

In his richly insightful book Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, Pierre Klossowski offers a penetrating examination of the eternal recurrence in terms of Nietzsche’s complex biopsychological makeup that alternated between healthy lucidity and crushing delirium; especially the philosopher’s bouts of debilitating migraine attacks (among other illnesses). Of particular significance is chapter three, which focuses on Nietzsche’s pivotal experience at Sils-Maria and his subsequent interpretation of reality as the circular structure of eternal time.

Klossowski also discusses Nietzsche’s ideas on art, science, and the process of organic creativity toward the future overman within the becoming of nature. Now available for the first time in an English translation, this book will benefit readers greatly with its captivating exploration into the life and vision of this profound but controversial thinker.

Karl Löwith’s Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same is a stunning treatment of the German thinker’s interpretation of this dynamic cosmos as the endless repetition of an identical universe. First published in National Socialist Germany in 1935 and only now available in an English translation, this key book presents a clear, focused, scholarly and level-headed analysis as well as evaluation of the bold philosopher’s central and awesome concept of the eternal recurrence. Löwith often lets Nietzsche speak for himself, but this does not detract from a splendid presentation of the iconoclastic thinker’s system of ideas and perspectives. Special attention is given to Thus Spake Zarathustra, which Löwith correctly points out is Nietzsche’s major work.

This critical examination treats both the cosmological implications and ethical consequences of taking the eternal recurrence outlook seriously. Nietzsche himself interpreted the flux of nature in a Presocratic fashion, proclaiming the unity of reality. Löwith’s impressive volume makes it obvious that Nietzsche turned to cosmology in order to comprehend the true value of our own species. Yet, there remains a paradox between the future overman who wills his own values and the strict determinism of this finite but cyclical universe.

As the father of atheistic existentialism and therefore a strictly secular worldview, Nietzsche is necessary reading for anyone who desires to understand and appreciate the present human predicament in terms of a “God is dead” philosophy. Löwith’s exceptional and indispensable study of the eternal recurrence is a very important contribution to the philosophical literature and, as such, this book is a must-read for all Nietzsche enthusiasts.

Nietzsche held that our ‘human, all too human’ species would give rise to the future overman ‘beyond good and evil’; individuals of superior intellect who will be devoted to new values, artistic creativity and the quest for philosophical wisdom. Ongoing advances in biotechnology, e.g., nanotechnology and genetic engineering, will offer awesome possibilities for scientifically directing organic evolution and designing novel forms of life (including ‘improving’ our own species).

For Nietzsche, only the forthcoming overman is capable of grasping and accepting the far-reaching ramifications of the eternal recurrence of this same universe. In Viroid Life, a collection of six essays, Keith Ansell Pearson gives special attention to postmodern humankind and the emergence of a transhuman being that does not yet exist.

Pearson objects to both the anthropocentrism in Nietzsche’s vision and the priority our species now gives to machines. In chapters five and six, he focuses on the creative process of holistic evolution within the framework of cosmic entropy. Reflecting on the historical web of life, he points out those salient ideas that underpin modern evolutionary thought, e.g., contingency, symbiosis, and self-organization. Unfortunately, since Pearson himself fails to offer a substantial discussion on what may be the future outcome of accelerating biotechnological evolution, through human intervention, this book is a disappointment.

With The Nietzsche Canon, William H. Schaberg has written a fascinating and detailed portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche as a struggling author and tragic figure. This remarkable book vividly illuminates the great philosopher’s extraordinary genius, but within the context of a human being with endless problems and ongoing frustrations. Among Nietzsche’s twenty-one books, Schaberg focuses special attention on the complex publications of The Birth of Tragedy (1872), the four-part Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-1885), and the music for Hymn to Life (1887).

Of particular interest is Nietzsche’s intense outpouring of his five final works during 1888, just prior to his insanity. Also discussed are Nietzsche’s philological articles, early books and nine poems, as well as the unfinished Nachlass (notebooks) on the will to power. The reader learns about Nietzsche’s life-long poor health, peripatetic life-style, ineptness in business and passion for secrecy. (In fact, one wonders why publishers even printed his generally unsold, unread and unappreciated books.) Likewise, one comes to a better understanding of Nietzsche’s relationships with friends, printers, publishers, Richard Wagner, and his own sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche (1846- 1935).

With its extensive notes and annotated bibliography of sixty-one works, Schaberg’s outstanding scholarship is a very impressive contribution to recent Nietzsche studies. Consequently, this unique book merits wide recognition.

In Metaphysics without Truth, Stefan Lorenz Sorgner interprets Nietzsche’s new metaphysics in such a way as to show how the will to power and the eternal recurrence of everything are consistent with the philosopher’s perspectivism. Even so, Nietzsche held that there are an endless number of perspectives on nature (raising a serious question about the status of truth). For him, this dynamic universe of both pervasive creativity and destruction is ultimately grounded in energy as the will to power. Furthermore, the Being of cosmic unity manifests itself as Becoming or an eternal circle of dynamic reality.

Sorgner emphasizes that Nietzsche saw neither rationalism nor empiricism as being capable of achieving the truth about this world; although Nietzsche did hold that both methods do help our species to survive within the flux of material nature. The absolute truth would be comprised of all possible perspectives on everything taken together, but this is a goal beyond human reach.

Also, Sorgner analyzes Nietzsche’s conception of nihilism as represented by Buddhism, Christianity, and Arthur Schopenhauer. In sharp contrast to these three viewpoints, Nietzsche offers a thisworldly, life-affirming philosophy of overcoming and fulfillment. With both his challenge to traditional values and appeal to the naturalist attitude, Nietzsche emerges as the philosopher for our new millennium. As such, Sorgner’s erudite but refreshing book is a launching pad for ongoing Nietzsche studies.

© H. James Birx 2000

Raymond Furness, Zarathustra’s Children: A Study of a Lost Generation of German Writers. Rochester, Camden House, 2000, ISBN 1- 57113-057-8.

Pierre Klossowski, Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle. (trans. Daniel W. Smith) University of Chicago Press, 1997, ISBN 0-226-44387-6.

Karl Löwith, Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same. (trans. J. Harvey Lomax) University of California Press, 1997, ISBN 0- 520-06519-0.

Keith Ansell Pearson, Viroid Life: Perspectives on Nietzsche and the Transhuman Condition. Routledge, 1997, ISBN 0-415-15435-9.

William H. Schaberg, The Nietzsche Canon: A Publication History and Bibliography. University of Chicago Press, 1995, ISBN 0-226-73575-3.

Stefan Lorenz Sorgner, Metaphysics without Truth: On the Importance of Consistency within Nietzsche’s Philosophy. München, Herbert Utz Verlag, 1999, ISBN 3-89675-589-7.

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