Emrys Westacott on Friedrich Nietzsche

Westacott picks his top five books

Emrys Westacott (author of a new book on philosophy, The Virtues of our Vices) suggests the importance of applying philosophy to everyday living. This interview first appeared in The Browser, as part of the FiveBooks series. Previous contributors include Paul Krugman, Woody Allen and Ian McEwan. For a daily selection of new article suggestions and FiveBooks interviews , check out http://thebrowser.com/ or follow @TheBrowser on Twitter:
Let’s talk about the Nietzsche book you’ve chosen, then. It’s called The Gay Science, which means…?

It’s just a translation of the German, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, which means the joyful wisdom. It’s my favourite of all Nietzsche’s books. It’s interesting that 50 years ago Nietzsche was not taught much in academic philosophy departments. Gradually, in the 1970s and ever since, there’s been a tremendous burgeoning of academic interest in him. If you go to the philosophy section in any bookshop, you’ll find there are more books on Nietzsche than on any of the other great philosophers. One reason for that is that he’s an absolutely fabulous writer. He’s also extraordinarily original and seems to have so many interesting thoughts on almost everything.

But another reason for Nietzsche’s popularity, I think, which ties in with what we were talking about earlier, is that he doesn’t just concern himself with theoretical problems like the mind-body relation or the definition of knowledge. He does concern himself with traditional philosophical problems to some extent, but he also offers a philosophy of life. He really does. I think this is one of his great appeals. When you read Nietzsche, you can relate much of what he says to your own life and experiences.

Give me an example.

So the book is written in aphorisms, short passages, ranging from one sentence to a couple of pages. In one place, he talks about becoming the “poets of our lives”. What I take him to mean is that if you think of your life as a poem or a work of art, you can work at making it a coherent and attractive whole. You can chip away at the things you find ugly. Say there’s some character trait you’ve got, say you’re a little bit greedy – you try to work on that trait. You don’t cut it out completely, necessarily, but you try to convert it to a more desirable trait, perhaps to a form of ambition that is productive and fruitful. In this way, you’re taking your own life as raw material, and you’re working at it to make it something more harmonious and, ideally, beautiful. I assume that guiding idea in Nietzsche appeals to most of us.

It also seems to tie in with modern research by the psychologist Jamie Pennebaker [mentioned in the next book, by Jonathan Haidt] who found that if something very bad happens to a person and they write about it in such a way as to create a meaningful story, they feel better. One of Nietzsche’s most famous lines is on trauma, isn’t it?

Yes, in another book, he famously says, “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” A lot of people have criticised that, saying that it’s obviously not true, because some things are just terrible. But I think that misunderstands Nietzsche. What he is saying there is: “Here is an attitude that you should try to take, whenever you can. When bad things happen to you, ask yourself, how can I use this?” And I think he’s right about that. It is a fruitful, positive, productive attitude to take.

The Gay Science is quite a hard book to read though, isn’t it, if you’re not from a philosophy background?

Yes. Nietzsche presupposes a high degree of cultural literacy on the part of his readers, and in his later works he tends to presuppose that you’re familiar with his own interests, his way of writing and his terminology. And yet, when I teach a class on existentialism I usually do include this book. Yes it’s difficult, but he’s unfailingly interesting. One of the things Nietzsche does is relate the philosophy of everyday living to grander historical and cultural concerns. So, for instance, one of the main themes in The Gay Science is the death of God. In Book III, he famously announces that “God is dead”. On the face of it, this means that religion, Christianity in the West, is losing its hold over people’s minds, it’s declining in importance both socially and politically. Religion is no longer the psychic centre of people’s lives. In general cultural terms, the “death of God” also raises issues about belief in objective truth. But it also links up to the way that people live. If religion is no longer at the centre of your life, if you no longer have a belief in God or the afterlife, or in a cosmic justice that keeps you on the straight and narrow and rewards you for virtue and punishes you for vice, you have to think again about your fundamental values and how you want to live.

Is joy important in this book as well?

Yes, joy is an important concept in Nietzsche. He was a classical philologist. He’s steeped in the classics of Greece and Rome, particularly Greek tragedies, and his first book was on Greek tragedy. He starts out by accepting the tragic view of life. As Sophocles said, “Greatly to live is greatly to suffer.” Life is going to involve a lot of suffering; the human condition is fundamentally tragic. We’re mortal; we’re bound to fail to achieve things we want to achieve. His whole life is spent, in a way, trying to argue that the greatest affirmation of life is to affirm it in the face of that tragic insight – to say that life is good, even though it’s suffering. That’s the greatest way of saying “yes” to life one can imagine. He thinks the Greeks, in a way, did that, and he’s trying to do that himself. Are you familiar with Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal recurrence?

I know it’s a big theme in Nietzsche, but you’d better explain.

At the end of Book IV of The Gay Science he introduces the idea for the first time. It’s a very beautiful passage, called The Heaviest Burden. He says, imagine that one night a demon were to whisper in your ear that this life you’ve lived, with all its joys and all its heartaches, you’re going to have to live again and again, an infinite number of times. The natural thing to do, Nietzsche assumes, would be to fall down and grind your teeth and pull your hair out and say, “This is awful!” – because life is suffering. But, perhaps, he says, there was a moment when you wouldn’t have done that, when you would have said, “This is great; I welcome this news. It’s the finest thing I’ve ever heard.” That would be the peak of life-affirmingness, where you could embrace the eternal recurrence of all things, the eternal recurrence of your own life, despite the fact that your own life may include a great deal of misery. His life certainly did. His great happiness was his writing and his work. His great misery was his loneliness, and the failure of most of his relationships.

And his terrible health.

And his terrible health. [Read More]
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