Monday, December 25, 2006

Nietzsche - so misunderstood

The title is cliche. Everyone knows that Nietzsche was and is widely misunderstood. He didn't believe in Nazism or militant dictatorships (in fact he despised nationalism). Of course, that's not to say that he wasn't radical. He may have been in favor of some extreme things (though not what you might think - for example, renouncing normal, modern pleasures). Above all he favored creators: people who could decide on what is truly worthwile on their own, and then pursue it like it truly mattered. Creators are people who can create meaning, tradition, and truth.

I went looking for a good Nietzsche criticism and I found this piece by Santayana. This particular paragraph jumped out at me:

The first principle of his ethics was that the good is power. But this word power seems to have had a great range of meanings in his mind. Sometimes it suggests animal strength and size, as in the big blonde beast; sometimes vitality, sometimes fortitude, sometimes contempt for the will of others, sometimes (and this is perhaps the meaning he chiefly intended) dominion over natural forces and over the people, that is to say, wealth and military power.

This seems to me to be the classical misunderstanding of his philosophy. Santayana conflates Nietzsche's obsession with power with his value of it. Power is not always "the good." Hitler was powerful but he certainly wasn't good. Nietzsche didn't believe the power was good - but he did believe that without power, the good was impossible. People without power cannot be good. They are too easily manipulated, and they lack the understanding to appreciate the good when they run into it. The "good" form of power manifests itself in philosophy, science, knowledge, independence, and self-control (honesty falls under self-control).


Wendy said...

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are the two greatest thinkers of our times, and yet they're so misunderstood. Kierkegaard is misunderstood as an irrationalist, which is a very false charge. Thank goodness he's able to evade the Nazism charge though. Nietzsche however, is less fortunate thanks to books like "Why we are not Nietzscheans" and "Nietzsche: Prophet of Nazism". Oh well.

undergroundman said...

I certainly agree, even I haven't had the chance to tackle much of Kierkegaard. I should add that Santayana died in 1952 according to Wikipedia. His views are likely dated, but I don't really know what philosophers today think of Nietzsche.

My Nietzsche interpretation is based on R.J. Hollingdale's Nietzsche: The Man and his Philosophy.

Damn good book.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what you and wendy will think about this but Nietzsche's reputation as a philosopher by fellow philosophers is in the decline.

Don't get me wrong, he and Kierkegaard are experiencing a golden time in their reputation to the general public; Kierkegaard and Nietzsche's views on religion and morality are in high demand because of the war and continuing global tension.

The knight of faith, the will to power, purity of heart, the ubermensch, truth is subjectivity, are going to be much discussed topics by laymen in our terror-ridden, angst-filled age.

But in academic philosophy, Nietzsche is in decline because guys like Kaufmann and Hollingdale are dead and are unable to defend Nietzsche against the many critics levelled against their interpretation of Nietzsche; accusing them of white-washing Nietzsche's background and omitting potentially devastating aphorisms and quotations from their translations. In my classes in politics and ethics, Nietzsche is mentioned in passing; as a footnote; as an "irrationalist writer in the 19th century". And I've heard my profs call Nietzsche an "intellectual bully".
Cute, huh.

undergroundman said...

Are you in a good school? Your prof sounds like an idiot. :p

I bet Nietzsche would love being called an intellectual bully -- even though I don't really understand how that could be a bad thing. Hard to attack his background, too, when the most he ever did was serve as a medic and denounce Wagner and his sister's anti-Semitism.

My profs are fairly tight-lipped about Nietzsche. He's not exactly easy to understand in some cases, I suppose (though I find him much easier than the convoluted logic of Kant).

Did you say anything to your prof, or is reasonable argument too time-consuming these days?

Anonymous said...

Well that's the thing, Nietzsche isn't very reasonable; his arguments are full of contradictions, inconsistencies, bad logical argumentation, like ad hominems, and many other holes and gaps. Calling him an "intellectual bully" is in the style of Nietzsche, that's what he does to other philosophers, but that's not good philosophy, they say.

That's the general opinion of Nietzsche at my school's philo dept, which is one of the top twenty in America. They think his logical errors suit him best in the Germanic literature department.

As for Kierkegaard, he's a bit more reasonable with better logical argumentation than Nietzsche, but they still regulate him to the "Philosophy of Religion" subdiscipline, and not to any major branch (epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, logic)

Such hostility to the two philosophers who had both criticized academic philosophy. That ain't surprising.