April 23, 2019

Can Nietzsche Be a Self-Help Guru?

“If Friedrich Nietzsche were alive today, what would he think of our times? “The nations are again drawing away from one another and long to tear one another to pieces,” he might observe. “The sciences, pursued without any restraint and in a spirit of the blindest laissez faire, are shattering and dissolving all firmly held belief; the educated classes and states are being swept away by a hugely contemptible money economy. The world has never been more worldly, never poorer in love and goodness … Everything, contemporary art and science included, serves the coming barbarism.”

That passage, from one of the philosopher’s “Untimely Meditations”, was published in 1874 and illustrates the extent to which Nietzsche is always our exact contemporary. The problem with writing books about him, though, is that you just can’t compete with the bleak hilarity and glamorous swagger of his prose, and to reduce the wild forest of his thoughts to single propositions in precis is nearly always to traduce him.

The American philosophy professor John Kaag tries a different tack, aiming to use Nietzsche as a kind of elevated self-help guru, scattering discussions of the philosopher’s life and works through a memoir of the author’s own youth and romantic life. This approach is defended early on by the claim that Nietzsche’s philosophy “is no mere abstraction. It isn’t to be realised from an armchair or the comfort of one’s home. One needs to physically rise, stand up, stretch, and set off.” It is surprising to see a professional philosopher talking of “mere abstraction” here. Few people today will stand up for abstraction, but it is a keystone of all intellectual endeavour, as Nietzsche himself well knew. “There are epochs,” he wrote, “in which the man of reason and the man of intuition stand side by side, the one fearful of intuition, the other filled with scorn for abstraction, the latter as unreasonable as the former is artistic.” (On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense, 1873.)”

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