As promised, here’s my first post about Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, allegedly the most accessible of his works.
I’ve read the book once already, though I did so in a truly half-assed fashion and don’t remember much about it, other than that I was vaguely impressed and surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It’s time for another attempt, and a more thorough one this time.
I’ll be writing about it as I read, fumbling with his ideas and trying to spell them out a little more simply. Hopefully I’ll come to understand his work better as a result, and maybe I’ll even help you do the same.
I started at the beginning. Before the beginning, actually. This first post is about the preface only.
It’s just a couple pages long, but I managed to wring more than a thousand words of content from it. If anything, I think I was a bit sparse with my analysis, because I feel like I could have written a whole book on Nietzsche’s initial paragraphs, especially if I’d bothered to follow every one of his digressions and historical references, let alone try to unpack what he meant when he referred to ‘good Europeans.’
I didn’t bother to, for the most part. Here you’ll find what I have to say about Nietzsche’s writing, but not much about all of the copious historical and literary references he makes. I’ll dig a little deeper when absolutely necessary, but I want this analysis to stay on the surface as much as possible.
That’s all that I can do with the time and energy available to me for the moment, but I still hope to produce something worthwhile here. At the very least, I know it’ll be worthwhile to me.
And on we go.
Beyond Good and Evil begins with a metaphor. Or maybe an analogy. I wondered if it might be a simile, but it doesn’t use ‘like’ or ‘as,’ which I believe rules the latter option out.
The first words, in any case, are: “Suppose truth is a woman—what then?”
If indeed she is, then Nietzsche likens the philosophers of days gone by—none of whom he names at first—to clumsy suitors who are awkward and heavy handed in their attempts to win her affection.
He calls these philosophers dogmatists—people who cling to ancient truths and simplistic worldviews, and bring hardheaded assumptions to every new philosophical problem they face. That’s my definition of a dogmatist, by the way. Nietzsche doesn’t offer one of his own.
As a result of their shoddy efforts, these dogmatists have failed in their pursuit of truth. They’re still standing on her lawn, boombox held aloft, trembling arms about to give out as she sits inside with her own music turned up and good book in her lap.
He attributes the clout that old philosophers carry to historically low standards for what qualified as ‘good philosophy’ (that’s my term, not Nietzsche’s).
He contends that all these ‘philosophers’ edifices’ (that’s Nietzsche’s term, not mine) are founded on old superstitions and shored up by clever turns of phrase and ‘seduction[s] by grammar’, among other things. The superstition of the existence of a soul is one such shaky edifice, according to him.
But he expresses the hope that these dogmatic philosophical traditions have laid the groundwork for better ones. He calls them a ‘promise across millennia,’ which I think means that they’re there to tide us over until better alternatives appear, much as astrology served as a kind of placeholder in the ages preceding modern science.
So he does concede that we should ‘not be ungrateful to it.’ –to old dogmatists, that is. But he then goes on to lay what he calls the ‘worst, most durable, and most dangerous of all errors’ at the feet of the philosopher Plato, whom he counts among those dogmatists.
That error is the ‘invention of the pure spirit and the good as such.’ As far as I can remember from my university philosophy electives, ‘the good’ basically refers to something that is perfect and enduring and that lies outside the world as we know it, and that is the source of truth and pretty much everything else too. The ‘pure spirit’ refers to the soul.
Nietzsche claims that Christianity is the modern-day successor to Platonic philosphy, and goes on to happily declare that it has been overcome in Europe, or at least that it is losing its footing. He calls Platonism a nightmare from which Europe has woken up, and dismisses it as the result of ‘standing truth on her head and denying perspective.’ (Italics are Nietzsche’s, not mine.)
The result of the struggle against this way of thinking, according to him, is that Europeans now feel ‘a magnificent tension of the spirit.’ He also refers to a sense of need and distress, and goes on to liken the spirit of a post-Platonic Europe to a tensed bow.
Good Europeans (who Nietzsche distinguishes from Democrats, Jesuits, and even Germans, of which he is one) are keenly aware of this tension, and he claims that this newly tensed bow can be used to shoot for distant goals. Basically, the absence of Platonic/Christian values has left Europeans with a strong need, and an awareness that their newfound tension must be used to aim for something new. He finishes by wondering what the arrow is that they are to shoot, and towards what goal.
That about sums it up. The short (and probably oversimplified) version of all this is that Nietzsche sees a need for a new kind of philosophy to replace the ancient ones on which European society was built. Old Platonic and Christian ideas are in decline, and have left behind a keenly felt vacancy that is sure to drive the efforts of new generations of philosophers. He has a less than favorable view of those old philosophies, but seems optimistic about what’s to come. Exactly what that is remains to be seen.
I intended, and still do intend, for my writing about Beyond Good and Evil to be more of an analysis than a rewording, but that’s an approach that I’ll need to perfect as I continue. So far, I’ve just regurgitated Nietzsche’s words using simpler language. I know that doesn’t make for great reading, but this particular entry wasn’t helped by the fact that the foreword doesn’t contain much philosophizing.
At the time of writing, I’m already a few pages into part one of the main text, and it’s obvious that things are going to get more interesting going forward. Nietzsche has established a need for some sort of new philosophy, one that runs up against modern (for him) assumptions, and from part one’s initial musings I can see that Beyond Good and Evil is going to make for good reading. I know it’ll be complicated and rambling—that much I can remember from my first time through the book—but I’m genuinely excited to really dig into it and work up to a cohesive understanding of his ideas.
Now, to loose that arrow and see where it lands.