What happens when you let Nietzsche be your guide to Nietzsche? What makes Nietzsche’s (and our) health, life, and thinking so inseparable from one another? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Jeremy Fortier. This present conversation focuses on Fortier’s book The Challenge of Nietzsche: How to Approach His Thought. Fortier teaches in the Department of Political Science at the City College of New York. His articles have been published in the Journal of Politics, Polity, and the Review of Politics.
ANDY FITCH: The Challenges of Nietzsche suggests that this author’s books “At every turn… point away from themselves… toward the life that he lived.” But why does reading Nietzsche’s work “in light of his life” mean more than just biographically tracking the recurrent ailments, the chronic isolation, and the long uplifting hikes? How can taking “Nietzsche as a guide to Nietzsche” open up broader examinations of philosophy’s origins in an embodied and socially embedded philosopher’s “health,” “life,” and “thought”? How can tracing such experiential factors prompt us less towards emulating/rejecting Nietzsche as a figure of authority, and more towards treating Nietzsche (and perhaps ourselves) as “a sort of alien but powerful life form, requiring careful examination and competing interpretations”?
JEREMY FORTIER: Few self-identified philosophers have occupied themselves with autobiography as much as Nietzsche (Daniel Blue’s recent study The Making of Friedrich Nietzsche has shown that autobiography was actually a preoccupation of Nietzsche’s from a young age). In light of that preoccupation, it’s certainly fair to ask: do Nietzsche’s writings amount to a series of idiosyncratic, inimitable reflections? Or what kind of generalizable lessons can be extracted from them?
I think the answer begins with a claim made in one of Nietzsche’s early books: “The only criticism of a philosophy that is possible and that also proves something, is to see if one can live according to it.” By devoting so much of his writing to autobiography, Nietzsche shows that this claim applies to himself no less than to any other philosopher. For Nietzsche, you can’t ultimately prove a philosophical point by publishing an argument in a book, but you can inspire someone to try and prove it through their life. In Pierre Hadot’s words (which can serve as a useful scholarly introduction to Nietzsche’s understanding of philosophy): “A philosophical demonstration derives its evidential force not so much from abstract reasoning as from an experience which is at the same time a spiritual exercise.”
Nietzsche’s autobiographies therefore blend general principles (perennial problems that he believes every would-be philosopher will have to confront) with highly idiosyncratic details (for instance, his culinary and climate preferences). The lesson for Nietzsche’s reader is: certain truths about the human situation apply to all times, places, and individuals — but the human response to truth remains deeply and unavoidably particular to the individual (and, to some extent, the broader social context). Even in the best cases, knowing a fact does not determine one’s response to it. Part of Nietzsche’s criticism of earlier philosophers is that they tended to overestimate or overstate how efficacious their insights could be for others. He emphasizes autobiography in order to counteract that tendency.
So I guess you could say: Nietzsche wants readers to see that although truth is not relative, the individual response to it is. This means that we need to alternate between reflecting on what is true in general, and discovering how those insights pertain to our particular lives.
Incidentally, although in my book I quote a letter of Nietzsche’s which implies that readers ought to look at him as “a sort of alien but powerful life form, requiring careful examination and competing interpretations,” I don’t quite say that we should look at ourselves that way. Yet I think that the suggestion is an astute one, because Nietzsche very much wants us to always challenge, test, and overcome ourselves.
To be sure, all of these suggestions of mine involve contestable claims about Nietzsche’s views, but that’s where I’ll plant my flag.
So still in terms of reading Nietzsche in relation to his own life, how have dubious developmental narratives shaped a sense of Nietzsche’s philosophical trajectory showing great promise in its “middle period,” though then descending towards bombast, breakdown, failure? How can an alternative focus on cross-cutting categorizations (say of yes-saying and no-saying passages and projects, throughout Nietzsche’s career) dislodge attempts at definitive, teleological, moralizing, and/or ideological pronouncements on Nietzsche’s written record?
Many readers have identified genuine (perhaps insurmountable!) problems with Nietzsche’s thought. But certain conventional narratives about his thought’s development have left the impression that Nietzsche moved from one rather dogmatic position to another — whereas I argue that Nietzsche alternated between different positions, in order to better reflect on problems embedded in the structure of his thought. So I would suggest that, even for readers who find Nietzsche’s thought objectionable in principle, there may be something to learn from how Nietzsche himself wrestles with some of those objections.
One virtue of this approach is that it can counteract more ideological or extremist appropriations of Nietzsche’s thought. Nietzsche was something of an extremist, no question, but he had a capacity for self-criticism that few extremists have. To that extent, I think Nietzsche’s own example can always serve to rebuke any overly simplified, overly enthusiastic “Nietzscheanism” — but again, this requires approaching his thought less as doctrinal, and more as autobiographical.
As one recurring figure in Nietzsche’s work, and as a perennial inclination in his own life, the Free Spirit seeks to distance him/herself from certain personal relations and social conventions, to attain inward-turning clarity, to disentangle group morality from authentic individual preferences. Along the way, this Free Spirit may end up overestimating his/her independence, may unwittingly betray his/her own metaphysical or moralizing streak. But why might Nietzsche decline to discard Free Spirits for those reasons? And how does Nietzsche’s corpus keep channeling past ascetic precedent into a present-tense embrace of closest things?
It’s a testament to the multi-layered character of Nietzsche’s thought that influential readers have drawn extremely different conclusions about where he stands on the proper relationship between the individual and the community. Friedrich Hayek, for instance, takes Nietzsche as an arch-collectivist. Alasdair Macintyre and Martha Nussbaum, on the other hand, read Nietzsche as a hyper-individualist. And, in fact, neither side is entirely mistaken. The critics on both sides can and do cite passages in Nietzsche that support their interpretations. My response is to acknowledge that both sets of criticism are important, but both need to be nuanced by recognizing that a deliberate and self-conscious tension exists in Nietzsche’s writings — between the drive to individual independence, and concern for broader human community.
The Free Spirit’s dilemma exemplifies this tension. The Free Spirit is a character who sets out to be as independent as possible, but learns that there are more limits to their independence than they initially assumed. How many limits exactly? That will depend on the individual, and will require a constant re-negotiating of the relationship between oneself and the broader human community. So although Nietzsche discerns problems with his own Free Spirit ideal, he still doesn’t abandon the ideal. Nietzsche’s aim is not to resolve the tensions of human life, but to show the importance of confronting them squarely. Nietzsche thinks that we can admire Free Spirits’ determination to face reality, while acknowledging their imperfect success in doing so. And the fact that Nietzsche can criticize one of his work’s central figures, without writing off that figure altogether, seems suggestive about how readers ought to take his thought.
Now for another central figure (a quintessential yes-sayer, a life force not so different from the sun), Zarathustra starts off already in some sense fulfilled, seeking engagement with his fellow beings simply in pursuit of further happiness. How might Zarathustra’s distinct pursuits of love draw out his creative capacities, benefit others, cultivate community? And what role do some of Nietzsche’s more abstracted concepts (such as the eternal return, the will to power — and, I’d add, amor fati) play in propelling Zarathustra’s forever reposeful/questing attempt “to shape and properly direct the love he feels, so that…he can love what ought to be loved as it ought to be loved”?
Zarathustra starts out similar to the sun in that neither Zarathustra nor the sun need others in order to shine. They both possess self-generating power. They don’t depend on others for their brilliance. But they still desire others to shine upon. So the character of Zarathustra presents us with a puzzle: what makes Zarathustra so in need of others, and how does this need shape his relationship to them?
Nietzsche’s answer boils down to this: Zarathustra’s need for others, which he often expresses in terms of love for them, is a need that all human beings have (irrespective of how individually brilliant they may be); but it is an easily frustrated need, because we tend to love what we can control and shape according to our own will. As Zarathustra realizes this, he is forced to question: must we shape the objects of our love according to our will, or can we learn to love things just as they are?
Nietzsche’s more abstracted concepts come into play as Zarathustra reflects on his desires, and attempts to articulate the root of them (which he characterizes as the will to power), and what it would take to satisfy them (which he gradually realizes must entail the ability to affirm the eternal return of all things — thus loving the world for what it is, rather than for what one’s will would make it).
In my book, however, I also try to show that these more abstracted concepts found in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (or elsewhere in Nietzsche’s work) can be usefully translated into a more all-too-human, autobiographical context, particularly if we think about them as a reflection of problems Nietzsche first confronted through his personal acquaintance with the great composer and artist Richard Wagner. The problem of Zarathustra can be taken as an extension of the problem of Wagner, if we view both figures as wrestling with the problem of frustrated desire.
To unpack that last suggestion a bit: Wagner was someone of extraordinary ability, who nevertheless found that his ambitions always extended beyond his abilities to fulfill them. Wagner lived a life of constantly frustrated desire, at every level. In political terms, for example, Wagner at one point had been a committed revolutionary, but the revolutions he supported did not go as planned (he had to live in exile for a decade as a result of supporting them). On a more personal level, Wagner had several passionate romances, but generally with the wives of friends and associates, so again his affairs never worked out easily (if at all). On a more practical level, Wagner received significant support from wealthy patrons, but his lifestyle still regularly exceeded his means. And on an artistic level, even though Wagner’s achievements were historic and widely renowned, he was rarely content with the available production technologies or the skills of the singers he employed. So as a human being, as an artist, Wagner personified frustrated desire, and his operas are shot through with the longing for something more, something beyond one’s finite existence (my book quotes an essay in which Theodor Adorno comments quite astutely on this dimension of Wagner’s artwork).
Nietzsche considered this somewhat vague (but extremely intense) desire for something “infinitely more” the key to Wagner’s popularity. And despite all of his polemics against Wagner, Nietzsche recognized that Wagner had brilliantly set to music a very deeply rooted form of human desire. Nietzsche objected, though, that Wagner had sparked desires which the world could never satisfy. So, through his writings (and especially through the odyssey of Zarathustra), Nietzsche set out to determine: to what extent can human desires be satisfied? Is a healthy, fulfilling form of love possible? Nietzsche sometimes raises these questions in abstract ways, but I try to show that they also grow out of more concrete reflections on the life and artwork of Richard Wagner.
How might we then come to see both the Free Spirit and Zarathustra as impassioned aspects of one whole (potentially coherent) person, as different kinds of health (perhaps sometimes feeling like illnesses) picked up along the way, as contributing to a teeming fullness in which one’s physiognomy and biography and society and philosophy never could be fully separated? And how does the “Mr. Nietzsche” of Nietzsche’s own retrospective prefaces personify a productive harnessing of such tensions?
Well, we can think of Nietzsche’s philosophy as dialectical, but in a distinct sort of way: not so much as a conversational dialectic (à la Socrates), or a historical dialectic (à la Marx), but first and foremost as an internal, psychological dialectic. Nietzsche calls for a recurrent testing and overcoming of oneself, through which one finds new ways of rebelling against the givenness of one’s physiognomy and biography and society — but then also learns in new ways how these facts do (and do not) continue to determine one’s existence. This ongoing process of self-overcoming entails alternating between the different dispositions represented by the Free Spirit and Zarathustra, without taking either position as definitive.
Now, does Nietzsche himself ever settle on an optimal balance, an ideal state of internal contentment? The best I can do to answer is note that Nietzsche often describes his development (including his creation of the Free Spirit and Zarathustra) as an alternation between periods of health and illness. In a variety of passages, Nietzsche proposes that there is no final, definitive state of health — only this ceaseless process of struggling with illnesses, which spurs one on to new iterations of health, in a never-ending cycle (encapsulated in the famous phrase: “what does not kill me makes me stronger”). So I’m inclined to think that Nietzsche wanted to leave readers in a restless, dynamic state. The Mr. Nietzsche figure of the prefaces puts his own errors on display as evidence for the necessity of this ever-deeper self-testing.
To close here, could you describe your own intoxicating experiences with this philosopher’s “even more rigorous” returns to himself? How have you gone about retaining a sense that these prefaces likewise offer no definitive take on preceding projects, no final summation of Nietzsche’s “mature” or “complete” thought?
If one were to list the challenges in coming to terms with Nietzsche’s writings, around the top of the list would be his very unusual rhetorical style.
Nietzsche was a very powerful writer, for better and for worse. In some places his rhetoric is quite captivating, while in other places it sounds extremely harsh and off-putting. As a result, Nietzsche’s writings provoke strong reactions, both positive and negative. My initial reaction to Nietzsche was of the more negative kind. When I first read Nietzsche I found him unaccountably histrionic, and had no desire to spend any more time with him. But when I was forced to reread Nietzsche due to a course that I was enrolled in, I found him harder to dismiss. I realized that beneath Nietzsche’s extravagant rhetoric, there were substantial qualifications and critical self-reflections. I stuck with Nietzsche in order to see how far that self-criticism extended. To be sure, this approach can also be a trap — if one assumes that Nietzsche anticipated and resolved every possible objection to his thought.
This gets us back to the question of authority: how does one approach Nietzsche (or any other author) in a manner neither unduly credulous nor too quickly dismissive? My answer is that as a reader one has to work hard to understand an author on their own terms, but eventually one has to turn away from the author’s books — towards oneself, and one’s own life. So I agree with Nietzsche: “The only criticism of a philosophy that is possible and that also proves something, is to see if one can live according to it.”
To apply this principle to Nietzsche himself, consider one of the most famous slogans that appears in his books: “God is dead!” I take that less as a premise from which to deduce conclusions, than as a challenge for readers to live in light of — with results that are far from certain. So I would suggest that Nietzsche’s writings are designed to start an argument that readers have to finish on their own (and not necessarily in his favor).