Session 5: Nietzsche

Last session we discussed Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. Reading Nietzsche can be extremely challenging and my experience with last session’s work is best explained by simply quoting R. Anderson, who discussed the topic of reading Nietzsche in his article on the SEP. When reading Nietzsche, Anderson (who paraphrases Nehamas) explains that

our attention is fixated by certain brilliant, striking passages, or even whole sections, but because their connections to nearby sections are not specified, and because the text seems to switch from one voice to another, the reader simply moves on, taking each new section on its own terms; in short order, one forgets the details, the points, the cautions, or even the subject matter of passages several sections back—except, perhaps, for a few, especially memorable highlights, which we then call “aphorisms”. In this way, it is all too easy to fail to read Nietzsche’s books as books at all.

Since precisely for this reason and our lack of expertise in reading Nietzsche, we did not come up with a comprehensive, coherent interpretation of the book ourselves, let me simply give you a couple of these passages which hopefully convince you to take a look at the book yourself, and try to find out what Nietzsche was trying to say.

In chapter one, paragraph 21, Nietzsche writes that

The desire for “freedom of the will” is the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Münchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swaps of nothingness.

Chapter two is titled the ‘free spirit’ and in paragraph 25 Nietzsche argues that

(…) no philosopher so far has been proven right, and that there might be a more laudable truthfulness in every little question mark that you place after your special words and favorite doctrines (and occasionally after yourselves) than in all the solemn gestures and trumps before accusers and law courts. Rather, go away. Flee into concealment.

And in paragraph 40, it is explained that

Every profound spirit needs a mask: even more, around every profound spirit a mask is growing continually, owing to the constantly false, namely shallow, interpretation of every word, every step, every sign of life he gives.

Nietzsche seems to be interesting in unmasking or maybe deconstructing dominant conventions. One of these is the idea that we are autonomous human beings capable of making free decisions and this idea of the freedom of the will is being attacked by Nietzsche in chapter one. The other topic to be found in his book is that of the value of making independent decisions and being a free spirit. Whatever that exactly means is not very clear to me, though we can interpret from the passages cited above that he should not blindly follow conventional ideas about the importance of truth, make up his own mind and because of this intellectual independence, always be misunderstood and surrounded by a ‘thick mist of shallow interpretation’. Being a free spirit appears to be a rather difficult and lonely endeavor. I hope this tiny selection of the book gave you a bit of an idea of the themes discussed, and motivate you to read the book yourself, independently of my little summary of three paragraphs.

Several weeks ago Robert Pirsig passed away. Pirsig is the author of the famous Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. One of the themes explored in this fictionalized biography is that of ‘quality’. We think that the book and the philosophical discussion to be found in it will fit nicely into the broader theme of our reading group and we decided to discuss it on June 18. More information about the session will follow and we hope to see you in June!

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