Thursday, July 31, 2014

Prelude to an Unfinished Project

I have two translations of Beyond Good and Evil in my library.  One is the classic by Walter Kaufmann published in 1966.  The other is "a new translation" by Mario  Faber published initially in 1998.  The subtitle for the work is important: "Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future."  As Rudiger Safranski points out, Beyond Good and Evil was part of a multifaceted effort by Nietzsche to create a much broader and complex work which, as I pointed out previously, was never ultimately realized by Nietzsche.

From 1885 to 1888 Nietzsche assembled a vast collection of notes, ideas, and unfinished sections of books with the original intent of writing a reevaluation of all cultural values under the working title "The Will to Power".  "Although Nietzsche did not even come close to using all of the material from the preliminary work on these books, he did express what he considered the most significant ideas in Beyond Good and Evil, the fifth book of The Gay Science (1886), the new prefaces, On the Genealogy of Morals, Twilight of the Idols, and The Antichrist." (page 285)

To that extent Beyond Good and Evil is meant as an introduction, a change in direction, to a new way of looking at humanity and the universe;  hence his perspective of seeing this book as a "prelude" to the larger project about the future.  Before I post about what I find most insightful and useful in the work, I want to look at what the translators have to say about this philosophical effort, perhaps the finest of Nietzsche's life.  I will quote extensively from the introductions of the two translations beginning with Faber.

"More than his previous aphoristic writings Beyond Good and Evil is coherent as a totality as well as in its individual parts. Although it covers the gamut of themes that find expression in Nietzsche's mature philosophy, it is controlled and composed text, comparable to and intricate piece of music of a finely woven tapestry.  It rarely displays the frenetic, driving power of his last works, written on the brink of insanity, or the prophetic tones of Zarathustra, or the enthusiastic naïveté of his earliest writings, but perhaps for precisely these reasons, it is the most concise and compelling of Nietzsche's philosophical expositions." (page xi)

"Concepts are not givens, but inventions; antitheses are actually falsifications, since reality consists of gradations, not oppositions; and sensations and experiences, rather than being captured by language, are levels and distorted by it, made common and generalizable.  Nietzsche therefore insists that we are posing the wrong questions of philosophy. Instead of interrogating foundational concepts, we should be asking what function they play, why they are necessary, and how they are live-preserving or life-promoting.

"Nietzsche leaves no doubt that a free spirit is a superior human being 'delivered from the crowd, the multitude, the majority, where he is allowed to forget the rule of 'humanity', being the exception to it'." (pp. xii-xiii)

"Nietzsche here suggests that our modern penchant for science or nihilism, as atheistic as it appears at first glance, is merely a replacement for religious belief. Nietzsche is not unaware of the advantages that religion has brought to human society, even as it has debased human nature.  It helped humankind to endure an otherwise intolerable existence and has assisted us in constructing a viable social order by demanding that we love each other." (page xv)

"In general, however, Nietzsche's attitude towards religion is that it represents a stage of human development that must be overcome.  Christianity, in particular, has led to a 'degeneration of the European race', and the persistence of Christian belief is a sign that the human being has not developed into a creature that is strong enough to achieve the type of self-contained nobility of spirit Nietzsche envisions." (page xvi)

"Morality, in a sense, has become 'natural' or necessary for the human being, even though it violates basic human nature and instincts.  Without morality human society in general and European culture in particular would have been impossible.  But we should not confuse the necessity for some kind of morality with the naturalness of any particular moral system since in their essence all moral judgments are ultimately based on capriciousness, irrationality, and the violation of natural biological drives." (page xvii)

"Nietzsche hopes that the future will bring a radical revaluation of this herd morality that will teach humans' that their future is their will, that the future depends on their human will, and they will prepare the way for great risk-taking and joint experiments in discipline and breeding in order to put an end to that terrible reign of nonsense and coincidence that until now has been known as 'history'." (page xviii)

"The free spirit of tomorrow will no longer subscribe to the truths of today; he will reject the average and the norm and validate the exception and the extraordinary.  He will disabuse himself of the illusion of a disinterested and objective knowledge, understanding that knowing is at bottom a function of the will to dominate.  He will rid himself of moralities that preach equality, democracy, the general welfare, and utilitarian values, and affirm instead the natural hierarchy Nietzsche captures repeatedly in the term Rangordnung.

"More problematically Nietzsche propagates a human being that will not feel compassion with the oppressed and the unfortunate in society, and that will not seek to do away with suffering, including his own suffering. Rather, the pity this future man feels will involve the disdain for the manner in which the human race has made itself small and petty, and he will nourish suffering as the aid to 'depth, mystery, mask, spirit, cleverness, greatness'.  In a controversial aphorism Nietzsche even ventures a reconsideration of cruelty as an essential part of human nature.  All higher culture, all great tragedy, everything sublime, all knowledge, he contends, are ultimately based on cruelty, either towards ourselves or towards others.

"Above all, however, the 'very free spirits' Nietzsche conjures up for his readers will be genuine revelers of knowledge, the knowledge that we have repressed and neglected in civilized Europe.  The task Nietzsche assigns his free spirits is 'to return to nature;  to master the many conceited and gushing interpretations and secondary meanings that have heretofore been scribbled and painted over that eternal original text homo natura.'  In terms of present values Nietzsche's free spirit will thus prove to be an 'immoralist' who affirms life and aspires to the heights of culture and creativity." (pp. xix - xx)

"The German term for noble is vornehm, a word that has the connotation of superior rank, of privilege by virtue of birth and distinction, or of some natural superiority. Nietzsche makes it obvious that genuine nobility in his sense has been damaged and made undistinguishable 'as the rule of rabble begins, under this heavy, cloudy sky that makes everything opaque and leaden'.  But he also emphasizes that the type of noble human being he envisions is desirable,  indeed that human society without noble men would be a miserable, inartistic, uncreative wasteland. His fears about the disappearance of nobility are therefore the flip side of his critique of modernity, which has led to the leveling of creativity and distinction because of the democratizing trend and the demand for equal rights. 

"Nietzsche, continuing his anti-modernist polemic, opens this section by affirming the need for 'a great ladder of hierarchy and value differentiation between people'. Searching for a time when nobility reigned in human affairs as well as an explanation for the demise of aristocratic regimes, he describes conflicting systems of values: one, associated with a hierarchy based upon natural superiority, is the product of the nobility itself.  The other, the result of the slaves, has endeavors to debase everything grand in the human spirit.

"Nietzsche's vision may have some historical foundation - although he gives few genuine historical illustrations to support his claims - but it is shocking nonetheless. Life itself, he asserts at one point, 'in its essence means appropriating, injuring, overpowering, those who are foreign and weaker; oppression, harshness, forcing one's own forms on others, incorporation, and at the very least at the very mildest, exploitation'. Nietzsche's argument is that these words evoke in us repulsion because of our own adherence to a morality that has degraded noble values, which he consistently regards as more natural and more life-affirming, more creative and more vital.

"When Nietzsche's advocacy of nobility is interpreted simple as a call for more freedom and creativity, for an end to repression and leveling of individual differences, his philosophy quite rightly meets with general approval.  But the darker side of Nietzsche's views should not be ignored: at times he affirms a return to an aristocratic social order in which the happiness of the vast majority would be sacrificed for an elite caste that will produce and enjoy a European cultural renaissance." (page xxii - xxiii)

By way of qualification, Julian Young, it should be recalled, has already indicated that when Nietzsche is discussing his ambitions of a return to an aristocratic basis of society he does not mean an aristocracy based upon birthright. Rather, he means a human hierarchy based upon values and creative spirit, naturally at the expense of anyone who does not share these new values and does not possess the capacity for such creativity.

Walter Kaufmann is considered one of the preeminent authorities of Nietzsche.  His insights into the work help contextualize some of the specific critique by Faber above. He places the work alongside other worthy philosophical and religious efforts.

"One reasonable perspective for Beyond Good and Evil is to see it somewhere between Kierkegaard and Ibsen on the one hand and Freud and Sartre on the other. And considering how much Nietzsche has to say about 'nobility' on this book, it is good to recall that the old Freud said in a letter about Nietzsche: 'In my youth he signified a nobility which I could not attain.'

"It would be foolish for a translator, and even for a commentator, to attempt to foist his own estimate of a book with which he has been living for some time on those who will henceforth share his experience to some extent. But in the spirit of Zarathustra's 'This is my way; where is yours?' I shall venture a suggestion.

"This is one of the great books of the nineteenth century, indeed of any century, despite much with which the modern reader might disagree.  There is much in it with which I too do not agree; but that is also true of Plato's and Aristotle's writings, of all great philosophical works and, making due allowances for the different genre, of Dante's and Dostoevsky's ideas and of the Bible.  There are some passages that strike me as blemishes without which the book would be better; for example, the tedious remarks about women, the mercifully briefer comments on the English, and the poem at the end.

"It is possible to say briefly what makes the book great:  the prophetic independence of its spirit; the hundreds of doors it opens for the mind, revealing new vistas, problems, and relationships; and what it contributes to our understanding of much of recent thought and literature and history. Readers might ask, for example, about the relation of various passages to psychoanalysis, to analytical philosophy, or to existentialism.  But even a far longer list would not do justice to the book.  There remains another dimension. This is one of those rare books in which one encounters not only a great thinker but also a fascinating human being of exceptional complexity and integrity.

"One final caution.  Beyond Good and Evil is not a collection of aphorisms for browsing.  Each of the nine major parts, with the possible exception of part four, is meant to be read straight through.  Each pursues one complex of problems, and what is said in one section is frequently qualified decisively in the next, or a few pages later.  The often surprising developments of an idea constitute one of the major charms of this work. And it is in part on their account that this book, like all great books - for this is part of their definition or, as Nietzsche might say, a criterion for the order of rank - needs to be read more than once.  It is a book to be reread and live with." (pp. xvi-xvii)