Monday, August 11, 2014

Nietzsche, the Übermensch?


Or, The Birth of Tragicomedy.

In life, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) was, or tried to be, many things. Intellectually influential, however, he was not, as the following Google Ngram chart suggests:

(Right-click to open in a separate tab)

Born well into the Romantic period, Nietzsche in many ways embodies, with diverse degree of success, notions associated with that movement: the man struggling alone against frightful difficulties, against society itself and its norms, to bend the world to his will: the Übermensch (Superman).

Nietzsche's goal in life:
"I teach you the overman [i.e. Übermensch, literal translation; superman]. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?" (link)
"Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog" [A]

It was in death (first intellectual and, then, physical) that Nietzsche became influential. There is little more romantic than that.

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During most of his childhood, after his father and little brother's deaths, Nietzsche was the only male in a not very affluent Prussian household, dominated by strong female authority figures (including his mother and domineering sister, Elisabeth -- two years younger -- grandmother and two unmarried aunts).

Never much of a "farfallone amoroso" (oblivious to his shyness, moody disposition, and chronic financial insolvency, Nietzsche apparently attributed his lack of success with the ladies to his appearance alone), Nietzsche twice turned to the military in pursuit of fulfilment ("Cherubino, alla vittoria! Alla gloria militar!"), in spite of his poor eyesight and health.


The first time (1867), as a trainee artillery officer, a horse-riding accident left him disabled. A few years later, during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), fully recovered from his injuries, he volunteered for duty but, after a short stint, was sent home in defeat, not by French bullets or bayonets, but by diarrhoea and diphtheria.

After that experience, Nietzsche settled for academic life. However, unhappy with the professorship his teacher, Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl, got for him at the University of Basel, in 1878 Nietzsche resigned, to become a gardener. A few weeks later, he quit his new career; his weak back taught him the seemingly unimagined: gardening involves not only fresh air and the magnificent Alpine outdoors; it involves back-breaking work.

Then, he attempted a writing career, but his books wouldn't sell, leaving him always short of cash.

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On January 1889, Nietzsche's writing career came to an end, after suffering an irreversible mental breakdown. A final indignity awaited for him: his care fell upon Elisabeth (for whom Nietzsche had mixed feelings), until his death in 1900.

Those proved to be Nietzsche's luckiest career moves, as the Google Ngram chart also suggests. Elisabeth would become his best literary agent: immortality finally was at hand.

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As is often the case with philosophers, Nietzsche's work is subject of interpretation. For Alain de Botton [*] a generous interpreter (from whom I draw heavily), Nietzsche is a moral philosopher and tragic romantic hero whose own life illustrates his philosophy of struggle in the face of overwhelming adversity:
"Like his father, he [i.e. Nietzsche] had wished to offer us paths to fulfilment. But unlike pastors … he had judged difficulties to be a crucial prerequisite of fulfilment, and hence knew saccharine consolations to be ultimately more cruel than helpful." [page 243]
While that interpretation allows us to salvage something valuable from his life, Nietzsche himself conspires against it, for his own inadequacies (among them, lack of empathy, and egotism) and lack of self-awareness. More a tragicomedy than a drama.

Notes:
[*] De Botton, Alain. 2000. "The Consolations of Philosophy". Sydney: Penguin Books Australia.


Image Credits:
[A] "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog", 1818, by Caspar David Friedrich. This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain. Wikipedia

Update:
(17-08-2014) Added the short paragraph on Nietzsche's luckiest career move.

2 comments:

  1. I find Nietzsche somewhat problematic. On the one hand, the man was insightful regarding social power, its source, and its application. On the other hand, his rhetorical approach to sharing that insight is so over the top, so bombastic, so in your face, that if you believe that he actually meant what he said and was not trying to push people's buttons, you have to judge him to be an egotistical narcissistic sociopath. I cannot accept that characterization of him, though, because if he was truly seeking power for himself, he would not have shared what he understood, regardless of how he shared it. Personally, I think his presentation of the subject matter displays a great deal of empathy because he understood that, like him, people needed to be shocked out of their complacency and acquiescence to power.

    That said, anybody who accepts and praises Nietzsche's philosophy literally is a danger to society.

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  2. "I find Nietzsche somewhat problematic. On the one hand, the man was insightful regarding social power, its source, and its application."

    I too, find him problematic. And, yes, he was very insightful.

    I am preparing at least two more posts on Nietzsche's political philosophy.

    "On the other hand, his rhetorical approach to sharing that insight is so over the top, so bombastic, so in your face, that if you believe that he actually meant what he said and was not trying to push people's buttons, you have to judge him to be an egotistical narcissistic sociopath. I cannot accept that characterization of him, though"

    Well, the possibility that he was just "trying to push people's buttons" should not be left out. You are probably in good company in your belief. I suppose that explains that the Frankfurt School guys did their utmost to rehabilitate Nietzsche's thought.

    Unlike yourself and presumably the Frankfurt blokes, I, at the other hand, tend to believe "he actually meant what he said" and was "an egotistical narcissistic sociopath".

    For one, that kind of ideas was more prevalent than one is predisposed to believe. Malthus, before Nietzsche and Burckhard and Stirner (Nietzsche's contemporaries) had ideas very similar in many ways.

    For another, Nietzsche never was an example of mental stability and research has shown that wasn't limited to the last part of his life.

    "If he was truly seeking power for himself, he would not have shared what he understood, regardless of how he shared it."

    Maybe he wasn't seeking power for himself. :-) Seriously now, I wouldn't try to make sense of a person like Nietzsche.

    This reminds me of a dialogue in the Red Dragon film. Will Graham said to Hannibal Lecter he (Will) had aprehended him because Lecter had "disadvantages". "What disadvantages?", asked Lecter. "You're insane", said Graham.

    At any rate, I cannot prove he was a sociopath, nor shall I try. I'm no psychiatrist.

    But, to tell you the truth, if Nietzsche and I were left alone in a room, I wouldn't feel very comfy. I wouldn't turn my back on him.

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