Reading Nietzsche: Human Exceptionalism

When one thinks of Nietzsche, the first image the probably comes to mind is that of the much-used profile: with the mustached and quaffed philosopher resting his head in his arm, peering off into the distance and also out of a sort of heavy-tweed-coat shell. What people probably imagine, when animating this picture in their mind, is a firebrand: an ebullient, cantankerous brute, slamming down coffee cups to punctuate shrieks, while preaching to those fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to be within earshot about the “superman” and the need to cull the weak in order to perfect the glorious Reich—made so by the “will to power” of a deserving elite, and the transformation to seeing themselves not as men but as gods on earth.

In this dramatization we see Nietzsche, the proto-Nazi, encouraging German colonialism abroad and eugenics at home—all made possible by death of god and the superiority of humans in their rightful place at the top of the hierarchy. Sound familiar?

The problem with this dramatization, however, is that it’s just that: a sensationalized (and downright crude) caricature of the real man and his real ideas. But because of many factors—from intellectual laziness on the part of translators and philosophers and thus an ignorance of the actual text, especially in its original German, to deliberate attempts to misconstrue Nietzsche’s concepts, starting during his lifetime with his own sister—the first modern free-thinker (the first and last existential philosopher you’ll ever need, in my opinion) is still burdened with the (Sisyphean?) boulder of this character assassination.

Maybe the force of his ideas is transposed into physical, human force; how could a person who assaulted the old intellectual guard with so many conceptual bombshells not be a kind of human howitzer: big, loud, imposing?

But as with most conventional ideas, the opposite is indeed more accurate. Consider the fact that “superman” is a mistranslation (and even taken at its incorrect face value, super man is singular, thus not the call for a superior race), Nietzsche never wrote a work called “The Will to Power” (his sister did, though), and he was actually very private and quiet (and didn’t drink coffee or beer or whiskey—only mild tea, as he had a bad stomach).* And then consider that he not only didn’t believe in a master race, but he didn’t even believe all that much in the German imperial project, or in any state, for that matter—and, in fact, didn’t think that humans in general were all that exceptional, in the grand scheme of the cosmos.

To begin On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, Nietzsche wrote:

In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of “world history”—yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.

One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is down for again, nothing will have happened.

Could someone who considered himself to be the center of the universe show such humility?

* Walter Kaufmann dispels many myths and rumors about Nietzsche in his introduction to “Zarathustra” in his collection of translations, The Portable Nietzsche:

He is shy, about five-foot-eight, but a little stooped, almost blind, reserved, unaffected, and especially polite; he lives in modest boarding houses in Sils Maria, Nizza, Mentone, Rome, Turin. This is how Stefan Zweig brings him to life for us: “Carefully the myopic man sits down to a table, carefully, the man with the sensitive stomach considers every item on the menu: whether the tea is not too strong, the food not spiced too much, for every mistake in his diet upsets his sensitive digestion, and every transgression in his nourishment wreaks havoc with his quivering nerves for days. No glass of wine, no glass of beer, no alcohol, no coffee at his place, no cigar and no cigarette after his meal, nothing that stimulates, refreshes, or rests him: only the short meager meal and a little urbane, unprofound conversation in a soft voice with an occasional neighbor (as a man speaks who for years has been used to talking and is afraid of being asked too much).

And up again into the small, narrow, modest, coldly furnished chambre garnie, where innumerable notes, pages, writings, and proofs are piled up on the table, but no flower, no decoration, scarcely a book and rarely a letter.

…Wrapped in his overcoat and a woolen scarf (for the wretched stove smokes only and does not give warmth), his fingers freezing, his double glasses pressed close to the paper, his hurried hand writes for hours—words the dim eyes can hardly decipher. For hours he sits like this and writes until his eyes burn.




17 thoughts on “Reading Nietzsche: Human Exceptionalism

  1. This reminds me of one of my preferred passages from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the anti-state ‘On the new idol,’ from Part I. Among many quote-able entries:

    “[T]he state tells lies in all the tongues of good and evil; and whatever it says it lies–and whatever it has it has stolen. Everything about it is false; it bites with stolen teeth, and bites easily. Even its entrails are false. Confusion of tongues of good and evil: this sign I give you as the sign of the state. Verily, this sign signifies the will to death. Verily, it beckons to the preachers of death.”

    The entire passage is pretty great, I think, and certainly doesn’t sound like musings of a power-mad advocate bent on a super race. Rather it seems the perspective of a man who sees the deceit of the state (and its religious counterparts) and urges individuals to avoid its despair.

  2. “The first and last existential philosopher you’ll ever need”

    What do you mean by this? What exactly is an “existential” philosopher?

    • While many philosophers have written on the human experience, existentialism has a specific meaning within the context, i.e. a line of thought starting in the 19th Century and ending with Camus. But yes, that probably confines things too harshly; it’s hard not to think about the human condition, being humans. The trick is to think about the non-human one.

      • “The trick is to think about the non-human one.”

        Except the plot thickens at this point, because, strictly speaking, even the “non-human condition” is still contained WITHIN the human condition.

        Philosophers concern themselves with the world (i.e. with everything, i.e. with existence), but the world we perceive is inescapably anthropomorphised. We are incapable of perceiving a world that is not human. Nietzsche explains exactly this in his Truth and Lies in an Extra-moral Sense essay you linked above. What this means, then, is that EVERYTHING is, in one way or another, connected to the “human condition”. Or, in other words, that the pseudo-concept “existentialism” is useless going by your (and everyone else’s) definition, since it would render every philosopher an “existentialist”.

        The encyclopaedists themselves have clearly no clue of wtf they’re talking about. But since, on one hand, they lack the brainpower to understand the matters these philosophers write about, and on the other, they are forced to summarize their works, they necessarily resort to placing these ideas AND these philosophers into nice and tidy little boxes and slap on top of them all these meaningless labels (“existentialisms”, “post-modernisms” and pretty much every other “isms” there are). Afterwards, they discuss among themselves these fantastical labels and call it a day. They don’t ever think again about the issues the philosophers wrote about. And this is actually harmful, because in the process they fool themselves (–and all the other gullible idiots that pay any attention to them) into believing they actually have a clue about anything…

  3. I mean, if “existentialist” doesn’t work for you as a useful category, then simply discard it. It’s not really that big of a deal. (I didn’t invent it.) As to anthropomorphism, yes – I also think Nietzsche was correct that all observation, and thus analysis of the natural world, is inherently psychological. But humans are animals – animals who are related to all other living beings – and so solidarity is not only possible but the default without the corruption of industrial civilization/capitalism. And I also agree that Nietzsche suffers from oversimplification, usually by those who have not read his work (hence this little blog experiment I’m doing). So the answer, as usual, is to read more Nietzsche! Oh, and go outside more.

  4. “It’s not really that big of a deal.”

    Actually, it is, for the reasons I explained above, in the last paragraph.

    “But humans are animals – animals who are related to all other living beings – and so solidarity is not only possible but the default without the corruption of industrial civilization/capitalism.”

    Not sure what’s the relevance of this for our discussion, but I like how you emphasize solidarity. What about CRUELTY? Did it not exist before capitalism? Are tigers being solidary to deers when they hunt them down, kill them and eat them? Did tigers exist before capitalism?

    Newsflash: solidarity has not been corrupted by anything: it is alive and is kicking.

    “So the answer, as usual, is to read more Nietzsche!”

    My advice is for you to read ONLY Nietzsche, actually (at least for a while, at any rate). If you’re going to spend time reading, at least read something with real substance, that’s what I’m saying.

    As for your last sentence: lol, yeah, maybe you should.

  5. Here’s a tip: people don’t like it when you quote them, and then use the word “newsflash” in your response. I’m aware that animals eat each other. Have you read any Derrick Jensen? Or Bob Jensen (no relation)? I suggest both, as well as reading more than one person’s work. And I don’t know about you but I go outside every day, and as much as possible.

  6. I had never heard of them before. I couldn’t find anything about Bob Jensen, unless Bob is short for Robert, in which case Wikipedia has him covered.

    I don’t think you should waste time with them now. Their theories are not going to lead anywhere, I can see it already. “Get away from the marketplace”, said Zarathustra, and that’s exactly what you have to do. Stop paying attention to whatever is being written TODAY, and focus on the absolute best of the past. THEN you can have a go at what’s being published now and have a good laugh at it. Seriously.

    So what should you read? Real philosophy. Everything begins with Nietzsche… If you want to understand the past, you have to read him. I don’t know what books you have already read, but The Gay Science or his Genealogy are a good start. Of course reading Plato, Descartes and Kant wouldn’t hurt, but you can skip those and go immediately to Nietzsche, because the great thing about him is that not only does he write about all these philosophers and their ideas, he explains why they were all CHARLATANS (he shows the ideas are stupid and what were the psychological reasons behind the belief in these stupid ideas). Before Nietzsche there’s pretty much only Heraclitus and Schopenhauer. Reading Plato is a good bonus, but I wouldn’t bother with the rest of the pseudo-philosophers for now.

    If, on the other hand, you want to understand the present, i.e. our “industrial civilization” and “advanced capitalist societies”, you have to read Baudrillard. But the problem here is that this bastard is UNDECIPHERABLE if you have not read Nietzsche. Moreover, it’s impossible to understand the present without looking at the past first. So this is why I’m saying you should focus all your energy on Nietzsche, at least for a while.

    But, yeah, I’ll stop pestering you now. 🙂

      • Never read anything by Camus, but after a quick search it seemed he and Baudrillard don’t really write about the same things. Baudrillard wrote about art theory (specifically about “modern art”, i.e. contemporary pseudo-art), about our democratic societies, and simulacra. But anyway, you should probably start with Baudrillard’s earliest sociological analyses: The Consumer Society, for example. His latter works are undecipherable for someone who lacks a solid background in philosophy. I myself am still reading Nietzsche, connecting all the dots, contemplating the ideas, etc, and even though I’ve been at it for almost three years and feel confident interpreting his works (except Zarathustra: I’m not ripe for that yet unfortunately), whenever I decide to get to Baudrillard, I find myself spending 2 freaking hours just to read 1 page of his. I really hate him for writing in such an obscurantist manner, but it’s still a great feeling when I finally understand wtf he means.

        But yeah, you should probably start with either The Consumer Society, or Simulations. Just take note that you probably won’t understand even 5% you’re reading and that you’d be better off with persisting with Nietzsche. I say this because it seems to me you are still very deeply dominated by morality (the Judaeo-Christian one, lol) and sailing beyond it is the most important thing for you now. To understand why these values exist (i.e. the psychology behind them), why these values are not and can’t BE “transcendental” nor “absolute”, why they are decadent, etc. When I started out all this stuff seemed crazy to me: democracy is supposed to be good, no? Killing is bad, no? We are all “equal”, right? Etc., etc. But if you keep at it, you’ll see what everyone is nowadays physiologically incapable of seeing: how the world works.

  7. Actually, I’ll e-mail you soon and share with you something that I show to very few people. You should feel special.

    That said, you’ll either be mindblown or ignore me forever, lol.

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