On reading the work of German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche
I encountered the name Friedrich Nietzsche long before I was acquainted with his work. It’s a name that many undergraduate students enjoy spelling in their notebooks for the curiosity it creates in others. Or sometimes for the pleasure that comes with getting the letters i, e, t, z and s in the right order. When I was a teenager, there was a mysterious and romantic glamour about the name ‘Nietzsche’, and even now it remains a password to exclusive but ultimately hollow social groups. Nietzsche enjoys a widespread following, but it can be difficult to find those attracted to the depth and range of his work, rather than the name and iconic moustache. In some ways he is like philosophy’s Che Guevara: an iconic and charismatic figure that has been simplified and co-opted by the mainstream.
On closer inspection, the philosophical writing of Friedrich Nietzsche is bold, yet vigorous; his arguments and observations move along swiftly, with a strong conviction and an urge to enroll the reader to his cause. I often find myself flicking through his books when I'm at a loose end, and it’s easy to lose yourself for half-an-hour or more in his essays or shorter pieces. But Human, All Too Human is the first book of Nietzsche’s that I've read in its entirety. It’s disarmingly accessible, and, camping out in the wilds, it made for perfect holiday reading.
Human, All Too Human was written when Nietzsche was around thirty-five years old. His ill-health had enforced a leave of absence from his academic position as a Professor of Philosophy at Basel University, and the freedom from daily administration created an ideal opportunity to think. Nietzsche’s troubled health and personal problems hastened a change in perspective, where the ailing philosopher began to take stock of the values which were most important to him, and wholeheartedly sacrificed those that were no longer compatible. Nietzsche himself observed the personal and philosophical significance of the book in his autobiographical work, Ecce Homo, where he wrote: ‘Human, All Too Human is the monument of a crisis.’
In effect, Human, All Too Human is the intellectual offspring of a turning-point: a change in Nietzsche’s critical perspective that swept away old habits and superstitions to establish a new approach. The work comprises a selection of over six hundred aphorisms, and spans an impressively wide range of topics. At the time of its publication, the book’s aim was to deconstruct and dissemble dominant trends of thought, to encourage new ways of thinking philosophically and emancipate the individual locked in ideology and culture.
In relation to Nietzsche's other work, Human, All Too Human marks a kind of epistemological break from the German romantics that inform his first two books. He openly rejects his prized philosophical precursor, Arthur Schopenhauer, and makes a determined move away from thought-systems structured by metaphysical precepts. Nietzsche begins to explore, and even embrace, some of the traditions of French Enlightenment thinking, but with a keen eye for false prophets and plaster saints.
However, all of this came at a cost. What, for Nietzsche, was a fertile theoretical move held some disastrous personal consequences. With the publication of the first part of Human, All Too Human, the philosopher made a decisive break with the composer Richard Wagner, who up until that point had been a close friend and artistic mentor. Nietzsche’s first work, The Birth of Tragedy, had owed much to Wagner’s aesthetic influence, and was indeed dedicated to the composer. Needless to say, this outright rejection of the romantic aesthetic did not endear him to Wagner's influential social circle, and brought much criticism and hostility upon its publication. And yet, while Human, All Too Human does not adhere any of the tenets or values of the romantics as such, there, the influence of the movement is still prevalent in Nietzsche’s deeply personal writing style, and in some of the images and themes he persistently returned to.
Labeled as a 'book for free spirits', the 1886 edition was prefaced by a quotation from René Descartes Discourse on Method:
... for a time I reviewed the various occupations of men in this life, trying to choose out the best; and without wishing to say anything of the employment of others, I thought that I could not do better than continue in the one in which I found myself engaged, that is to say, in occupying my whole life in cultivating my Reason, and in advancing as much as possible the knowledge of the truth in accordance with the method which I had prescribed myself. I had tasted so much satisfaction since beginning to use this method, that I did not believe that anything sweeter or more innocent could be found in this life; every day I discovered by its means something new which seemed to me sufficiently important, and not at all familiar to other men. The joy which I had so filled my soul that all else seemed of no account.Using Descartes to open his work is an interesting move, implying a commitment to the discovery of truth through a critical process of questioning and deconstruction. Stylistically, too, Nietzsche appears to owe something to Descartes in the way that rigorous philosophical examination is presented through a conversational, literary narrative. In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche structures his work in a somewhat idiosyncratic way, rejecting the narrative progression of Descartes’ essay form in favour of the aphorism. In a sense, Nietzsche becomes determined to eschew the extravagance of dense prose and get straight to the point:
René Descartes, Discourse on Method
'Most thinkers write badly because they tell us not only their thoughts, but also the thinking of the thoughts,' writes Nietzsche in Aphorism 188. Nietzsche himself is determined to be different. Even when he does expand on a theme, the density and intensity of his thoughts is remarkable. After some initial unevenness, his style is clear and direct: he settled on a high altitude of abstraction and remains there, varying his text with examples, but rarely, if ever, with excessive information, observations, or digressions.Nietzsche's decision to use the aphorism is inspired at least in part by French thinkers such as Montaigne and La Rochefoucauld, who popularly used the brevity and constriction of the form to examine popular ideas and psychological motivations. Nietzsche’s aphorisms are constructed to destabilize common cultural preconceptions, doubting the validity or universality of dominant ideological assumptions. Nietzsche believed that accepted truth acted in society as malevolent systems of power, and resisted the complacent security of religious values or self-evident truths.
Marion Faber, Introduction to Human, All Too Human
Nietzsche hails the birth of what he calls the free spirit, one who denies the pleasures and securities of metaphysical systems or what is perceived as religious dogma. Instead, the free spirit - a notion that itself retains a trace of the religious or the mystical - seeks comfort and enlightenment through the establishment of small, humble truths:
It is a sign of a higher culture to esteem more highly the little, humble truths, those discovered by a strict method, rather than the gladdening and dazzling errors that originate in metaphysical and artistic ages and men. At first, one has scorn on his lips for the humble truths, as if they could offer no match for the others: they stand so modest, simple, sober, even apparently discouraging, while other truths are so beautiful, splendid, enchanting, or even enrapturing. But truths that are hard-won, certain, enduring, and therefore still of consequence for all further knowledge are the higher [...]Nietzsche has a determined approach, and his method has had a profound influence on the course of twentieth-century; but what is most striking to the casual reader is the clarity and persuasiveness of his prose. His writing appears both transparent and, in a sense, self-evident to the reader. Although there are some serious missteps and ill-informed judgments, such as his poorly-conceived generalizations of women. His remarks on certain matters are to be discarded, but never forgotten, as they allow us an opportunity to examine Nietzsche with a critical eye, reminding us not to follow blindly after every word. But, having said that, much of Nietzsche's writing is fresh, original and often inspired in its liberal approach. His work often offers the impression of a thorough and vigorous method, which ultimately aspires to a scientific engagement with questions of truth.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Aphorism 3, Human, All Too HumanTranslated by Marion Faber and Stephen Lehmann
In some sense, the objectivity of Nietzsche’s writing is a trick of the light: he is just as much a prose stylist as he is a philosopher. The wit and nuance of his sentences, combined with the sharp intelligence of his observations, gives an intoxicating impression of Nietzsche’s passion and energy. These qualities make Human, All Too Human as entertaining and it is compelling. But while Nietzsche's later work reveals him as something of a philosophical visionary, honing his own uniquely mythical prose style, Human, All Too Human finds the philosopher grappling with a personal and philosophical impasse. We see a writer clearing away old influences, so that he can start once again at point zero: it’s as though he is clearing his throat before he speaks.
Human, All Too Human is a fluid and harmonious collection of thoughts and observations, ranging from ethics and social etiquette to religion and morality, to the very nature of philosophy and its role in understanding human life. In some sense, it finds Nietzsche at his most sober and perhaps scientific, but manages to engage the reader with a rare poetic richness and impressive metaphorical insight.