The philosopher who won’t go away

The current issue of Philosophy Now is devoted — not for the first time — to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. Little of the issue seems to be behind a paywall, and it’s worth your time to go over and browse.

To ‘get’ Nietzsche it’s important to locate him properly in the history of Western thought. His career as an academician began in 1869, a decade after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species and shortly after the revival of the application of critical scholarship to the Bible in the 1850s in Germany. He was intellectually competent to understand both, and was the first to foresee — or, at least, the first to say aloud — that Christianity could not withstand the twin assaults of critical scholarship and science that undermined the Christian narrative.

It became his philosophical project to construct a framework for living that didn’t rely on Christian dubiety and supernaturalism. Along the way, he managed to make himself one of the most misunderstood thinkers of all time, for reasons both fair and unfair.

  • Nietzsche reworked his thinking endlessly, with the result that his thinking constantly evolved. The Nietzsche of Human, All Too Human is not the Nietzsche of Twilight of the Idols*. All of Nietzsche’s work contains gorgeous writing that warrants quoting, but are not necessarily representative of the final shape of his thinking.

  • Christians hated him then, and hate him today, and were happy to lie about him.

  • His sister became his literary executor upon his death, and she was too stupid to understand his work — but glad for the money and prestige it could bring her. She unthinkingly mined passages from his notebooks and published them as The Will to Power, and hobnobbed with Hitler, causing a lot of confusion about when he thought what, and how it all fit together.

Nietzsche was writing for our time, for the age when science and scholarship would combine to cripple and destroy Christianity and nihilism would hang over the landscape as the devout were unmoored; he foresaw the indecent alliance between the Republican Party and the Evangelical Right — and the danger it poses.

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* Twilight of the Idols is the book to read first if you’re interested in Nietzsche’s thought. It is the last book written entirely when he was sane, and was intended by him to be a survey of his thought — a sort of valedictory before commencing the work that was intended to be his magnum opus, The Will to Power, which he abandoned and is not the book by that name subsequently published by his nitwit sister.

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