Right ho, so far I’ve chatted about class, myself, survival and Nazism. It’s been a mix of themes and I’m going to keep with that trend of being unpredictable. Are you ready? Really? Well, you’re in for a treat, I’m going to talk about philosophy, and what’s more, German philosophy.
Are you still there? Good for you. You are indeed a valiant, brave soul who deserves only the best in life. I’m proud of you.
“There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.”
Philosophy was my main subject at university and I have always found it highly interesting, hence the theme, but the topic of philosophy often gets met with shrugged shoulders and raised eyebrows, and I have never really understood why. Sure, there is the fact that the Ancient Greek stuff has almost no relevance to our civilisation some two millennia later, but when we look to modern philosophy there is some truly great stuff, not just in manner of thought and rational development of the world, but also of language. There are books packed with beautiful, rich language that serves to inform as well as tickling our lexical taste buds.
“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”
Alas, a lot of these books are left on the bookstore shelves or in an e-basket never to be read due to people feeling apprehensive about tussling with intellectual giants. We should not baulk from such things, we should strive to be more like greats, as Newton said:
From day one of my dealings with philosophy, I was always drawn to the German philosophers. There are a great many wonderful philosophers from a wide range of nations, but for some reason I
always found myself pulling a German book off the shelf. If you want political philosophy, go British (Bentham, Mill), if you’re lonely and uneasy with the world, go French, if you want religious philosophy go for Aquinas if you have faith and Nietzsche if you’re on the fence and enjoy a hint of madness. Of course, these are wild simplifications and there are a great deal of wonderful “modern” philosophers such as Kant, Mary Wollstonecraft, Auguste Comte, Kierkegaard, Emile Durkheim, Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Albert Camus, Satre, Rousseau and Derrida. Now, some of these writers are hard, and this is the mistake that many people make when introducing themselves with the subject, they pick up something too complex, maybe something on logic, and they are met with a style of language and thought which is alien to them, as it rightly should be, some of that stuff is incongruous for the majority of us. It is much the same as picking up a book on advanced mathematics and hoping to get it without a background in the subject, that just doesn’t happen. However, I found that if you find out about a philosopher before reading their work, it is much easier to get with them on the page. This is one of the main reason I love German, or at least German language, philosophers, some of them lived lives that were completely bonkers.
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
I’m going to see if I can’t convince you to pick up a book and give it a bash with eyes anew facing towards a new world of wonder. I’m going to try to do so with the man that set my intellectual world on fire, Friedrich Nietzsche.
When people talk about Nietzsche, there is one thing that almost always jumps to the forefront of people’s minds, Nazism. This is one of the most tragic relationships of all time as the result is that people feel as if Nietzsche were a Nazi himself and so steer clear from his work, fearing that they too might be won over by his powerful text and start trying to form their own political party and start killing people after having succeeded in a putsch in a cellar. Trust me when I say that Nietzsche is not
the beast you may think he is. In truth, he was one of the most wonderful writers with a true love of irony and humour.
“A pair of powerful spectacles has sometimes sufficed to cure a person in love.”
“In heaven, all the interesting people are missing.”
Now, Nietzsche did indeed coin the phrase “Übermensch”, or “superman” as it is translated into English, and this does of course chime in well with Aryan ideals, but it was far from being a map laid out for Hitler and his cronies. For Nietzsche, the Übermensch was a dream to solve the issue of what he called “the last man”, a man who is tired of life, who takes no risks and seeks only comfort and security. A lot of us are “last men”, we strive for a life of security void of danger, that’s all well and good, but should it be the aim of our species? Of course not. We should strive for excellence as a species; this is where the Übermensch came in for Nietzsche, it’s about ambition. He feared that a society of “last men” would not allow great men to come to fruition. Great men such as JFK, Churchill, Ghandi, Newton, Einstein, Mandela were not even close to being “last men” and were as close as we have come to the Nietzschean Übermensch. The Übermensch is a hero, not a villain. Well, he was until Hitler got to grips with him.
Right, I’m leaving Nazism behind now, enough is enough.
“Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”
Alas, for Nietzsche, madness was a harsh reality. In 1889, Nietzsche lost the plot good and proper, resulting in him trying to save a horse from being flogged in the streets of Turin and then collapsing. He then started writing “Wahnbrief” (madness letters – god, German is great) to his friends which he signed “Dinoysus”, the Greek god of wine, ritual madness and ecstasy. He had clearly gone off the deep end with some style, most people babble shit and such things, not Nietzsche, he was commanding the German emperor to travel to Rome so as to be shot. Needless to say, his friends, sensing all was not well with Nietzsche, stepped in and had him sectioned.
“What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”
I could write for pages about his life, and I like to think it would all be interesting. There is no need to read his entire back catalogue to be captivated by the man, his life is enough. Even if his life were not interesting though, his work is of a level of magnificence that I have never met since. There are writers who capture elements of him, but none that come close to having the whole deal on the page in the way that he did.
Many people are familiar with his hypothesis that “God is dead” and for those of us who are not at ease with religion, it is very easy to get on board with this notion. Many people assume from this that Nietzsche wanted God dead, that this was his aim in life, to strike the deity down, that he was a nihilist. In fact, what he believed was that nihilism had to be overcome for a culture to lay a foundation for true excellence. He embraced the concept of nihilism only in the fact that he wanted it dealt with so that society could move on from it and place it in the annuls of history.
“I praise, I do not reproach, [nihilism’s] arrival. I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength!”
Nietzsche has been tarnished throughout history and the vast majority of us have been taken in by this, but the fact is that we have a man who was tortured mentally by his desire to lay the groundwork for humanity to reach its true, great potential. Nietzsche believed above all other things that we were, as a species, capable of greatness and that there is a duty in that to strive to attain and sustain such potential.
If you are feeling brave, pick up one of his books, “Die fröhliche Wissenschaft” (The Gay Science – stop your tittering) or “Also sprach Zarathustra” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) are probably the best ones to kick off with. If you are not feeling quite so bold, just read about the man. You will find in his life story a man who has, in a way, changed the world whilst feeling utterly feeble in the face of such a grand and challenging task.
“One ought to hold on to one’s heart; for if one lets it go, one soon loses control of the head too.”
I’m going to wrap it up now with a selection of some of his prime quotes.
Until next time, safety first.