Reading Nietzsche: Cutting Through the Fog

“A great value of antiquity lies in the fact that its writings are the only ones that modern men still read with exactness.”

So much of what we discuss when we discuss philosophers is their aura: the swirling ethereal cloud that is either made of stories (i.e. filtered, second- or third-hand ideas about their ideas), or made of their highly sensationalized biographies. Or sometimes it’s some conflation of the two: Marx wrote a blueprint for (and single-handedly brought about) the Soviet Union, right?

When remaining in this ambient bubble, any formulation of thought about what the philosophy can offer us inevitably loses sight of the initial catalyst of that very process: the text itself.

No one may suffer more from such a text-detached fog as Nietzsche, who, depending on the day, is authoritarian, nationalist, racist, antisemitic, or all of the above—in short, a Nazi—and who, by virtue of being both a scholar in the classical tradition and a product of the 19th Century, is also provincial, pedantic, anachronistic, and irrelevant. Whew.

But the text still sits here (and at your local library), cloud or not, and every time I pick it up—whether it’s been days or years since I last did—it always offers me something of value: some new way of thinking about things or some new reason to feel emboldened and happy (for one of the biggest misconceptions of his work is that it’s overly cynical or depressing, when in fact much of it is about experiencing joy by creating meaning—and indeed about joy being its own meaning).

This week’s example is about the glorification of suffering. Hitchens has made this same point about Mother Teresa and others, but even Hitch might stand jealous of this masterful weaving of words:

If we admit, for example, the truth of the doctrine of Schopenhauer (but also of Christianity) concerning the redemptive power of suffering, then it becomes regard for the “general welfare” not only not to lessen suffering, but perhaps even to increase it—not only for oneself but also for others. Pushed to this limit, practical ethics becomes ugly—even consistent cruelty to human beings. Similarly, the effect of Christianity is unnerving when it commands respect for every kind of magistrate, etc., as well as acceptance of all suffering without any attempt at resistance.  (from On Ethics, 1868)

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2 thoughts on “Reading Nietzsche: Cutting Through the Fog

  1. This “fog” is only truly helpful before you read an author. Sometimes, it is the reason to read a work & you can discover — sadly — that it was the fog you were after all along. With regard to Nietzsche, the presumptions on his character (contradictory though they may be) often help sell his books. I am confident that very few could put them down with disappointment.

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