Nietzsche can be an incredibly difficult philosopher to try and understand. Perhaps I know this better than most since he is one of my favorite writers. I have read many interpretative books trying to explain Nietzsche in one way or another. Some have called him a crazy anarchist while others have referred to him as a Buddhist of the highest order. While I do believe that there were some authors that did capture some very interesting points; I fundamentally believe that interpreting Nietzsche is a personal endeavor.
I present here a little e-mail conversation that I had with a great friend of mine. His name is James and he is a huge intellectual, someone that I love to talk to whenever I get a chance because it is always the case that I will learn something new. He has a very logical and orderly mind which in many ways is completely different to how my mind operates. I consider him one of the greatest thinkers that I have met.
He sent me an e-mail a while back asking me about Nietzsche because he knew that I was such a fan. As you can see from his e-mail below, he is able to grasp many of Nietzsche’s ideas and is able to give certain perspectives on his writing that I have not seen anywhere else. The only problem that he seemed to have with Nietzsche’s work was Nietzsche’s fundamental insistence on the fact that true understanding could not be achieved through systematic thinking and obsessive self-control.
I try to answer his questions in the best way that I know how.
After reading his e-mail and my response, I found that his take on Nietzsche and my final attempt at a type of explanation was very unique. It was unique because it gave Nietzsche’s work a perspective that I have not seen in any of those books that I’ve read, those books that said that they understood Nietzsche and presented his ideas in the supposedly clearer fashion. I do not claim to understand Nietzsche, I just claim to understand Nietzsche in my own way.
I present our correspondence here so that whoever is interested might get a different perspective than he/she might be used to. As I said this is in no way some kind of final conclusion, it is just two subjective perspectives that might help anyone that is interested in Nietzsche; I hope that this helps you understand Nietzsche a little better:
Against intellectuals huh? Isn’t that kind of communist – and a tacit admission of intellectual inferiority?
So I was reading a bit of beyond good and evil, interesting book. I like how reading Nietzsche feels like having a conversation with someone smart. Unlike some others he leaves things more open ended, he allows you to interpret him without the usual defenses of vagueness, or layering his writing with passages meant to serve as some preemptive defense against criticism. He just gives it to you raw and lets you chew on it.
Which is what is really amazing to me, because I get him very easily and to me that’s what makes him distinct as a writer – he’s easy to ‘get’ – he just speaks his mind and to hell with the consequences. It amazes me that a writer like that would be so misinterpreted, and so poorly understood. Even the very essence of his philosophy is about the value of energy, vitality and strength itself; Nietzsche values the energy required to paint a picture as much as the picture itself, perhaps more so. To me it’s a conundrum how someone like him could be so misunderstood.
I remember when I was younger I ran into quite a few people who: 1) Claimed to be big fans of Nietzsche, who also claimed to be very intelligent if not outright superior because they had read him and I hadn’t. or
2) Were anti-Nietzsche, and claimed to be superior or in the right for having REJECTED him instead.
For years and years these people were my only insight into Nietzsche and for that reason he remained a big puzzle to me. It wasn’t until I finally picked up one of his books and read it that I understood that all that didn’t even matter. Either you get him or you don’t cause his message is quite simple: persevere, persist, ask questions, don’t give in – he stands up to what Spinoza would call the abyss, and under circumstances Descartes would consider hopeless, with an air of aloof triumph. I think it’s exactly that attitude that gets him hated, people resent the way he can shrug off issues like God that usually have profound emotional impact on others, but that for him are about as uninteresting as his daily bowel movement.
Which is refreshing, and something I really needed to read. I’ve found that ironically I’m very opposite to him on many points. My meticulous, systematic and cautious way of thinking is very contrary to his values. I find that it’s perhaps something I SHOULD read, not because I don’t ‘get it’, but because he had a very different perception than I do and it’s important for my growth to see things his way. But returning to my point, I don’t understand the intellectual #$%#@# that surrounds the guy. Sure, he values ego, sure he values the kind of rawness that talented, tactless egomaniacs usually possess, but I don’t see why he should stand as some definitive intellectual benchmark for so many people – the equivalent of an intellectual 400 pound bench-press. His writing has a humbling effect on me, perhaps because he and I are so different. I just don’t see how puffing up their chest would bring someone in line with him.
Conversely there are people like another friend of mine, forgot his name, who rejected him and claimed only egomaniacs liked Nietzsche. Although I have to admit he ended up becoming more and more of an egomaniac himself until I couldn’t stand him anymore.
Myself I look at it very differently, perhaps because I’ve built a very complex internal reference for understanding human thinking and emotions, but I can see how Nietzsche can be both correct about the value of those motivating energies, and almost contradictorily humble and self-effacing. The things themselves overlap because the energy that serves as their source are the same. So I hence take a very objective and mechanistic view of the issue which would hypothetically leave me lauded by Nietzsche for my courage in seeking unconventional answers and scolded by him for my cowardly tendency to obsess over finding a systematic answer I can take comfort in.
I was wondering how far into this you’ve gone. I can assume you’ve been through all this before with many other people given your history, and since you have more of an intuitive grasp of these things maybe you can shed some light on it, something that I can’t do through my systematic way of thinking.
I believe that the great difference between you and most people that read Nietzsche lies in the fact that you say that Nietzsche is easy to understand. Indeed it is the case that many people read Nietzsche as a type of test where they see his work and his ideas as intellectual weightlifting as you have said. I always wonder what Nietzsche would have said about all the things that are now written about his writings. I personally believe that he would say that those that read his writings and go on and on about how difficult his thoughts are, find this difficulty because they are not the people that should be reading his material. He was after all quite raw as you say and he did not pull any punches, and I doubt that he would pull any punches now. I do also agree that criticism meant very little to him.
I must begin by saying that I have changed greatly since the days when I used to read Nietzsche on a regular basis. But in those days, Nietzsche was a breath of fresh air that allowed me to begin to understand concepts that were forefront in my mind but that were considered taboo in many ways by the rest of society. Nietzsche is after all a live wire that creates a direct connection between you and the abyss. Those that truly love his work and fundamentally understand it, are those that are willing to sink their teeth into that live wire and discover in their own way a window into that abyss themselves.
I personally think that the reason why most people can’t understand Nietzsche is because they are trying to find some underlying principle that will allow them to feel comfort from his ideas. Many begin to read Nietzsche because they are told that they should read him in order to understand some greater truth, try as they might though those people cannot find this truth and all they find are what they consider to be inconsistencies. If you see Nietzsche more as an Oracle, as a Seer that is staring directly at the abyss, then you will see that he is not creating some underlying principle. That even though he did want to make such a principle known to the masses, so that they might understand the true reality of life as he saw it, he was really an Oracle that had a direct connection to the infinity of life.
Nietzsche, especially in his book beyond good and evil, represents a person that is willing to challenge the most basic premises of Western culture. Nietzsche is essentially the most politically incorrect philosopher of modern time in my opinion. As such he expounds upon the reality of human achievement; how this human achievement can only be possible by the expansion of the ego firstly and the expansion of the self eventually. Nietzsche tells us to do the one thing that everyone else tells us we should not do, he tells us that we should become more ourselves and that we should question and battle against anything or anyone that would tell us that there is something above our individuality.
Many of those that read his work and only understand a little of it, tend to view his doctrine as that of egotistical selfishness but that is only half of what he is saying. It has become very apparent to me that the most horrible of lies is the half-truth. Essentially it is not what he is saying that all I suppose, what he is saying is that you must begin your internal development by placing yourself first and everything else, that others are trying to impose upon you, second. Unlike just about everyone else, he believed that the ego is a good thing. He understood that even those supposedly evil desires, represent a natural instinct in man that drive him to greatness. That these natural instincts are not Original Sin that should be suppressed but that these instincts are man’s natural impetus to become more himself. If followed honestly, these natural instinct would lead any man to go beyond this ego.
Unfortunately those that read his work and try to live his methods, tend to only see in his writings what they believe in themselves. As I said, I have changed greatly since my early days when I read Nietzsche on a more regular basis. I do not believe that he is the be-all end-all of awareness and like everyone else he is flawed in his own way. He is though a true test in a way I suppose because he is a wonderful starting point if you wish to unshackle yourself from the oppressive ideologies of the world at large. If you do not understand his work, if you are not able to or capable of letting go of the belief systems that are imposed upon you, then his writing can actually confuse an individual even more. He is a test because properly understood he provides a window and impetus, but if he is not understood or only partially understood then he becomes a type of poison.
If you think of Nietzsche as an Oracle then you might be able to understand what your problems are with his methodology. An Oracle essentially grasps a gigantic flash of insight. This insight is sort of like an electrical vibration within his mind, he must then turn that vibration into language. The Oracle must take a large chunk of energetic essence that exists in the eternal present and convert it into language, our current symbology, and must try to explain this concept in linear time. Our language is based on our belief systems and our understandings of time. It can therefore be incredibly difficult sometimes to take concepts that are beyond our language and to try to convert them into language patterns that will naturally restrict and sometimes skew that original flash of insight.
My interpretation then is that Nietzsche is trying to tell you that a systematic thinking style can sometimes interfere with the understanding of these flashes of insight. If you’re thinking process is too rigid then your understanding of these insights (that might be outside of your current ideas of space, time and possibilities) might be impossible, or you might only be able to understand certain portions. As I’ve said before a half-truth is a horrible lie.
Let me know if this is what you meant and if you understand the point I’m trying to make. He is essentially coming from a perspective where systematic thinking can be detrimental to how ‘he’ acquires his knowledge and perspective. Mind you this is his perspective and not yours, and as he tells us himself, you must question all those that would impose their beliefs upon us. Is this what you meant?
He wrote me back that it was.