Review of "Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Anti-Christ"

In trying to come up with a reading list for a Nietzsche seminar that I imagine teaching at some point in the future I read Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. An astute thinker need not be aware of Nietzsche’s compelling style to to ask why read secondary literature when his own work is available. Answering such a question bespeaks one of the general problematics of Nietzsche scholarship and presents an excellent manner of opening to Kauffman’s account of Nietzsche.

In contradistinction to the manner in which Nietzsche desired to be read, Kaufmann presents a systematic approach of his work. Nietzsche himself did not write this way, instead he adapted his earlier thoughts to new considerations rather than simply refuting old ones, he posed what he saw were the most important questions and sometimes was only able to come up with partial answers, he wrote beautiful aphorisms using rich symbolic language which was to be appreciated and considered for it’s pith, beauty and the readers resonance with it rather than constructing logical edifices. This is not said to give traction to the claims of some readers of Nietzsche that categorize him as an irrationalist – but to show that the project of coming to grips with his thought requires a similar amount of patience and dedication that one would give to a sage. He wants you to read his entire work, slowly, and then start to respond to him. This is just one of several aspects which make Nietzsche difficult to approach in a classroom setting unless one is to read all or a majority of the Nietzsche books and essays. To give a real-world example of such difficultly in teaching Nietzsche, it’s worth mentioning here is that while taking a course on Nietzsche at NYU with Dr. Friedrich Ulfers our assigned reading consisted primarily of sections from The Will to Power as well as a number of essays written by the professor. Having read most of Nietzsche’s work on my own prior to this I found the course reading list appropriate, though it was clear from the questions asked by participants that reading selections and The Will to Power left them with gaps of understanding.

One of the admirable traits of Kaufmann’s work in this book is his scholarship. There are never claims that aren’t densely contextualized, different positions than Kaufmann’s own are explained and then shown to be risible concepts that are only the other author’s attempt to co-opt. Nietzsche That said, in many an academic circle Kaufmann is seen as a tamer of Nietzsche. I think this is a fair assessment, though I don’t think that this devalues his points of exegesis. In this book specifically he is interested in dealing with three major themes of Nietzsche’s work – his particular contribution to philosophy, his depth analysis of the human spirit and what it means to Nietzsche to be an “Anti-Christ”. Put more simply, the books is concerned priorly with Nietzsche’s thought as it relates to Psychology, Philosophy and Christianity.

As it relates to psychology, Nietzsche is widely recognized as the first depth psychologist. His character studies and examinations of history led him to understand the individual as being motivated not only by the desire for peace or pleasure but also power. Power as a motivating force may not be the one that leads the individual into a quiet life but this, Nietzsche states, is not always desirable or laudable. Kauffman shows how it is that Nietzsche holds the difference between great men and men to be of a greater degree of difference that that between an average man and an animal. The reason for this is that those that are merely acted upon and are unable to make themselves are just like the animals while those that are able to manage their passions and organize them in an artful way are the true inheritors of the divine potential within all. The ascetic/philosopher, artist and politician are the primary persons able to actualize this and they do so via “… the sublimation of their impulses, in the organization of the chaos of their passions, an in man’s giving “style” to his own character.” (252). Accomplishing this includes ridding oneself of erroneous thought as well as drastically limiting oneself by uniting the spirit and letting go of debilitating beliefs. While his deference to Aristotelan notions of habit and being prevent him from becoming a total vitalist, it is clear that his understanding of the potentials of humans is great should they truly make the decision to be so.

One of the things that I particularly like of Nietzche’s thought, upon which Kauffman makes a point of in the section on Sublimation, Geist, and Eros is the ridicule of the “pure spirit” that is supposed to exist after the body has died. He ties this connection of the pure spirit to a distrust or denigration of the human body and the willingness to subsume rationality, to castrate the mind in favor of an dangerous idealism. This is important as is bespeaks his deep concern with human self-realization and is connected to his notion of Amor Fati. Amor Fati, or love of one’s fate, is a formula which, paraphrasing Ecce Homo, holds that nothing that is may be subtracted from one’s self and that nothing is dispensable. Including every element in the material past which lead to the construction of the self up until the present one is better able to intellectually and totally sublimate oneself. Using faulty steps leads to a poorly integrated personality. The Overman does not hold mystical notions as he is content with the facts, as sublime or horrendous as they may be, as the manner in which he will actualize himself.

While Nietzsche is oft-quoted, mistakingly, as originating the quote “God is Dead”, his actual relationship to Christianity is much more complex than a simple repudiation of it as a mythical system created by a once nomadic tribe of people occupied by an imperial power.Towards the end of his life he signed his letters “the crucified one” and his contention with Christianity has more to do with the hypocrisies of the adherents rather than the distaste for the man. Christianity ethics as such he holds as being resentful, but he sees greatness in Christ who is in many ways similar to the other spiritual ideal which he respects, Socrates. Both were combatants against the prevailing statist logic that degraded the human spirit, a tradition which Nietzsche places himself in.

As a philosopher Nietzsche styled himself in opposition to another German philosophical giant, Hegel. Kauffman in this and his work on Hegel, however, points out that the two were often in agreement on many things despite purported fundamental differences. The holist-perspectivistic duality is something that, at least accord to Nietzsche, cannot be crossed however Hegel’s recognition of it is important to qualifying some of Nietzsche’s more bombastic claims. Also worth mentioning, thought not addressed in the book, is Nietzsche’s lauding by left and right political philosophers. The American anarchist Emma Goldman lectured extensively on him and as Corey Robin’srecent article illustrates, his writing also had a profound influence on the Austrian Right.