Reading Nietzsche: Motherly Love

“Now from your book I receive answers to very definite questions which concern me;” Nietzsche wrote to Malwida von Meysenbug on April 14th, 1876 (Good Friday, coincidentally), adding, “I think that I have no right to be satisfied with my attitude to life until I have your assent.” He then goes on:

But your book is to me a more severe judge than perhaps you yourself would be. What must a man do, with the image of your life before him, if he is to escape accusing himself of unmanliness?—this is what I often ask myself. He must do all that you did, and absolutely nothing more! But most probably he will not be able to do so; he lacks the safely guiding instinct of love that is always ready to help.

The book Nietzsche refers to here is Memoiren einer Idealistin (Memories of an Idealist), Meysenbug’s autobiography. Nietzsche apparently was a fan, writing earlier in the aforementioned letter:

You walked before me as a higher self, as a much higher self—but encouraging rather than shaming me; thus you soared in my imagination, and I measured my life against your example and asked myself about the many qualities I lack.

Later he writes:

One of the highest themes, of which you have first given me an inkling, is the theme of motherly love without the physical bond of mother and child; it is one of the most glorious revelations of caritas.

What are we to make of this extolling of the so-called motherly instinct: to nurture and protect and sacrifice for others? Such adoration of caring (or of charity or “brotherly love,” as the word comes from Latin caritatem: “costliness, esteem, affection”; in Vulgate often used as translation of Greek agape “love”—love of fellow man) runs counter to the popular image of Nietzsche as cold, unflinching amoralist.

But this was a letter, not a published work. Was he just being polite out of intellectual protocol, or simply attempting to flatter a close friend in private? But then again, if either of those scenarios are true, doesn’t that still show that Nietzsche considered friendship to be important, if not critical? What kind of nihilist writes letters to friends telling them that they really enjoyed their books? What kind of brute writes that reading an autobiography written by a woman made him question what it means to be a man, and that he admittedly had a long way to go to achieve his ideal, because he lacks caritas?

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