Friday, November 28, 2008

The Christian

Who was this professor that entered the world of philosophy with The Birth of Tragedy?

Nietzsche was born the son of a Lutheran clergyman in October 1844. He lived his early childhood in a slow, quiet, pastoral setting. His father died when Nietzsche was five. Nevertheless, his father gave Fritz a fundamental influence. Music. The pastor was gifted with a piano and played many classical compositions in addition to religious hymns and longer works of the Church.

Curtis Cate writes of Fritz’s boyhood. “His most remarkable characteristic was an acute sensitivity to music. Whenever his father began to play the piano, little Fritz would drop whatever he was playing with and listen with rapt attention. That his father was the only person in the community able to extract such lovely sounds from this wondrous instrument raised him above ordinary mortals and enveloped him in a celestial aura of infant adoration.” (page 6)


Early on, Nietzsche developed the habit of writing about his experiences. But this was more than just keeping a diary. Rudiger Safranski explains: "As a young boy, Nietzsche began to discover his keen delight in writing, which he indulged even while playing children's games. Barely able to contain his eagerness to record his experiences, he always rushed to note down in his 'little book' every detail of his games and have his playmates read his compositions. The game itself paled in comparison with his account of the game. As experiences unfolded, he was already crafting his narratives of them. He captured the fleeting moment and infused the present with imminent meaning. All of us ponder our existences, but Nietzsche strove to lead the kind of life that would yield food for thought. His life was a testing ground for his thinking. The essay was a mode of living." (pages 27-28)

When he was 14, Nietzsche jotted down a 30-page manuscript reflecting upon his youth entitled “From My Life.” In it he wrote: “God has given us music so that we should first of all be led upwards through it…its main designation is that it leads our thoughts to higher things, that it elevates us, even shakes us.” (Cate, page 15)

It was around this time he began composing his own music.

Another section in “From My Life” is translated by
R.J. Hollingdale: “I have already experienced so much – joy and sorrow, cheerful things and sad things – but in everything God has safely led me as a father leads his week little child…I have firmly resolved within me to dedicate myself forever to His service.” (page 17)

In yet another section of same the manuscript this time in
The Good European, possibly revealing his early enjoyment of hiking and being outdoors: “From childhood on, I sought solitude, and I felt best whenever I could give myself over to myself undisturbed. And this was usually in the open-air temple of nature, which was my true joy. Thunder storms always made the most powerful impression on me: the thunder rolling in from afar and the lightning bolts flashing only increased my fear of the Lord.” (page 19)

In Fritz’s extended family there were numerous pastors and religious workers. Christianity was more or less his family’s “trade.” It was faith-based, yet not fundamentally so. The enlightened arts were all appreciated and participated in along with a largely agrarian lifestyle. Nietzsche’s mother, Franziska, was thrilled that Fritz initially wanted to be trained in theology as his vocation.

Fritz loved to swim and often played in the rivers with his school friends. “From My Life” in The Good European: “Oh, it is delightful to surrender oneself to warm waters of summer! I especially felt this once I learned to swim. To give oneself over to the current, and so float effortlessly on the surface of the tide – can one imagine anything more lovely? In this regard I also esteem swimming not only as pleasant but also as very salubrious and refreshing.” (page 23) He often swam in the Saale River. He would enjoy rivers, lakes, and the sea coast all his life.

His grades were often excellent. In spite of frequent periods of illness relating to migraine headaches, joint pain, and nausea, he excelled in school. He scored consistently high marks in Latin, Religion, Greek, German, French, History, ‘industry’, and ‘good behavior.’

Nietzsche was a conscientious boy. In 1863, he wrote his mother to beg her forgiveness. From The Good European: “If I am writing you today it is nonetheless one of the most unpleasant and saddest things I have ever had to do. For I have committed something terrible, and I don’t know whether you will or can forgive me. With a heavy heart and against all my own natural inclinations I take up the pen, especially when I call to mind the splendid conviviality we enjoyed during the Easter holidays, a conviviality no discord was able to darken. Well, last Sunday I got drunk, and I have no excuse than the fact that I don’t know how much I can hold, and besides I was rather excited that afternoon.” (page 24)

It seems simple and perhaps sentimental to consider such a confession in our postmodern awareness. But, this letter reveals how sensitive he was to the world and how he strove to act in a manner befitting his family name. Getting drunk shamed him.

At age 18 he wrote an essay entitled “Fate and History.” It was interrupted by severe headaches which caused him to be bled by leeches in the school’s sickroom. In this essay Nietzsche begins to show cracks in his faith, based upon his academic experience. Cate offers a quote from the essay: “We have been influenced without having had the strength in us to oppose the counter-force, without realizing we have been influenced.” (page 31) While in The Good European the same essay states: “We scarcely know whether humanity itself is but a stage or period in universal history, or becoming; whether it is but an arbitrary epiphany of God.” (page 32)

In another short essay we find: “Absolute, fateless freedom of the will would make Man a God, the fatalistic principle reduce him to an automation.” (Cate, page 32)

He entered the university at Bonn at age 20 to study theology with a particular secondary interest in philology. At Bonn, Fritz was very much a "party" boy. He often went out drinking with friends, he visited bordellos, and generally strived to be a 'fast-living student.' (Julian Young, page 56)

Over the course of recent school years, his success in class, his academic essays, his mastery of old languages particularly Latin and Greek, and his exposure to new methods of historical interpretation such as David Strauss’ “The Life of Jesus” led Fritz to see that the teachings of Jesus should be subject to mythic explanation just like everything else handed down to us in written form throughout history.

This culminated on a visit home after his first semester at Bonn when he refused to go to communion with his mother. It was a profound first. His faculty registration in his second semester at Bonn became philology, not theology. It was a fundamental break.

Nietzsche took communion at his early schools and with his mother and sister regularly when at home up to his entry into Bonn. Of his break with the Church,
Rudger Safaranski summarizes it this way: “When he returned to Namburg during the first semester break in early 1865, his mother was horrified to see her son demonstrably refusing to take communion. An emotional quarrel ensued. Finally, she broke down in tears and was consoled by one of his aunts, who pointed out that all great men of God had to overcome doubts and temptations. She calmed down for a moment, but demanded that her son show considerate restraint in the future. He was not to mention any doubts about religion in her presence. His mother wrote to her brother Edmund: ‘My dear old Fritz is a noble person, despite our differences of opinion. He truly interprets life or, more accurately, time and appreciates only the lofty and good and despises everything crude. Yet I am often worried about this dear child of mine. But God looks into our hearts.’” (pages 43-44)

Later that year, Fritz clarified his position in a letter to his sister, Elizabeth.
Walter Kaufmann includes part of it in his biography: “Do we after all seek rest, peace, and pleasure in our inquiries? No, only truth – even if it be most abhorrent and ugly. Still one last question: if we had believed from childhood that all salvation issued from another than Jesus – say, from Mohammed – is it not certain that we should have experienced the same blessings? ...Every true faith is infallible inasmuch as it accomplishes what the person who has the faith hopes to find in it; but faith does not offer the least support for a proof of objective truth. Here the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.” (pages 23-24)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Dionysus Returns

Nietzsche's first major published work was The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. It is different from most of his other books in that it has more of a dry "semi-academic" style. The work was not considered academic enough, however, by others in the philology profession and actually damaged Nietzsche's career which had begun so brilliantly at the mere age of 24.

One reason for the largely negative reaction to the work by Nietzsche's colleagues was that it is more philosophical, more a critique of art, than philological, reflecting the fact that Fritz was already disenchanted with his profession and would have preferred another career or at least a broader scope.

The Birth of Tragedy was published in 1872, as he completed his third year at Basel University as a Professor of Classical Philology. Briefly, it states that the art of Greek tragedy reached the highest form of expression when it contained a balance of Apollonian and Dionysian influences.

This balance consisted of the strength of individual freedom and expression (Apollo) and the ecstasy of undifferentiated primordial unity (Dionysus). The discovery of this fundamental unity was something Julian Young calls "intellectually stunning." Young concludes: "...the artwork can be both Apollonian and Dionysian: how it can both comfort the individual in the face of the nauseous character of human existence and promote the flourishing of community by gathering it in a celebration and affirmation of its fundamental understanding of how existence is and ought to be." (Young, page 131)


Western civilization had historically lost this balance by the ascension of Apollo as the primary influence in tragedy, chiefly through the work of Euripidus and Socrates. The effect of this forced imbalance was felt in the arts up to Nietzsche's time. But, now thanks to the works of Kant and Schopenhauer and, particularly, the music of Richard Wagner, Dionysus was re-entering the realm of artistic expression.

The Birth of Tragedy is, first and foremost, a cultural critique of not only the ancient Greeks but of contemporary German society. As such, it excited the artists that read it, but it was deemed too harsh and, indeed, unsophisticated by Nietzsche's more conservative colleagues, who also took issue with Nietzsche's representation of Germany as being in a state of cultural decline.

"Nietzsche identifies two things wrong with modern culture. First, through the domination of scientific materialism and the consequent loss of the Dionysian, we have lost that 'metaphysical comfort' which saved us from becoming 'rigid with fear' in the face of the 'horrors of individual existence', in the face, above all, of inevitable 'destruction', death. The second thing wrong with our Socratic culture is that we have lost myth. Modern man is 'mythless man'. 'Myth' for Nietzsche means, in short, just what it means for Wagner - a 'view in common of the essence of things' which constitutes 'that nation itself'. From this point of view the problem with modernity it that all we have is an incoherent and constantly changing chaos of myth-fragments, 'a pandemonium of myths...thrown into a disorderly heap'." (Young pp. 132-133)

In his analysis of the book, R.J. Hollingdale writes: "He showed a special appreciation of the Hellenic world of the sixth century - formerly considered little more than a barbarous preliminary to the glories of the fifth - an it is probable that even if he had not been an original thinker himself he would still be remembered for his exposition of this era...[H]e had discovered that the driving force behind the culture of Hellas had been a contest, agon, the striving to surpass." (page 74) Be that as it may, Nietzsche nevertheless overextended himself in the work. "His advocacy of Wagner was perhaps partly to blame, but his really serious error had been to treat in a wholly unprofessional way a subject in which he was supposed to be a professional specialist. What is of value in The Birth of Tragedy is what links it with Nietzsche's philosophy as a whole: the hypothesis that creation is a product of contest, and that the creative force is controlled and redirected passion." (page 82)

Art itself is taken to be of great cultural and existential importance. My favorite line in the work is: "Only as an aesthetic product can the world be justified to all eternity." This is the late-romantic mind at its best. Nietzsche highly valued the place of art (and particularly of music) in life. Music was the chief way Dionysus was Becoming through Art into the world again.

That Art was a force by which a culture should value itself is also indicated in this line: "But the state no less than art dipped into this current of the timeless to find rest in it from the burden and the greed of the moment. And any people--just as, incidentally, also any individual--is worth only as much as it is able to press upon its experiences the stamp of the eternal; for thus it is, as it were, desecularized and shows its unconscious inward convictions of the relativity of time and of the true, that is metaphysical, significance of life."

The relation of Art (or more precisely the artist) to "the eternal" and the way the artist might "stamp" his "unconscious inward convictions of the relativity of time" are two fundamental concepts. These factors (among others) shape Nietzsche's more mature thinking later on.

The influence of Richard Wagner upon this work was gigantic. At the time of its publication, Fritz was a disciple of Wagner, frequently visiting him, sharing ideas, writing long letters to him, and steeped in the belief that Wagner was the perfect cultural force for the rebirth of genuine art in Germany. The preface of the first edition of the work was devoted to Wagner directly.

The preface reads in part: "I picture the moment when you, my highly respected friend, will receive this essay. Perhaps after an evening walk in the winter snow, you will behold Prometheus unbound on the title page, read my name, and be convinced at once that, whatever this essay should contain, the author certainly has something serious and urgent to say; also that, as he hatched these ideas, he was communicating with you as if you were present, and hence could write down only what was in keeping with that presence."

It should be noted that the word "tragedy" here is used in the old tragedy vs. comedy mode of dramatic distinction. Tragedy as serious, not funny. Fritz would use humor extensively later on, however. Not so much in this major work.

With the passage of time, the work proved to be more important in the field of philology (and philosophy) than was originally accepted and today rightly deserves reputation of an important precursory intellectual achievement. Walter Kaufmann explains: "Nietzsche's supra-historical perspective, however, and the initially poor reception of The Birth of Tragedy in philological circles, should not blind us to the fact that this book did anticipate a new era in the interpretation of Greek culture. F. M. Cornfield, one of the foremost authorities on early Greek religion and philosophy, was to hail The Birth of Tragedy as 'a work of profound imaginative insight, which left the scholarship of a generation toiling in the rear'; and his own, as well as Jane Harrison's, painstaking scholarship has vindicated Nietzsche's intuition of the Apollinian and Dionysian." (page 153)

To that extent, the work can be judged as the birth of Fritz's brilliant, insightful, and original thinking that would lead to much greater philosophical accomplishments in just a few more years.

Regarding the book, Rudiger Safranski wrote that if the work could be summed up in one sentence "it would read roughly as follows: it is better to approach the enormity of life with art, and best of all with music." (page 83)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Confession

"Whoever battles with monsters had better see that it does not turn him into a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. "

"The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself."

- Nietzsche

If you are my priest then this is my confession.

I'm unsure if I "believe" as Nietzsche did. I am re-reading. I am considering. I'm unsure. I only know that I "think" I am Nietzschean, if there is such a thing. But, I will try to confirm this.