Durant 1926: Criticism (Nietzsche)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IX Section 9 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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IX. Criticism

It is a beautiful poem; and perhaps it is a poem rather than a philosophy. We know that there are absurdities here, and that the man went too far in an attempt to convince and correct himself; but we can see him suffering at every line, and we must love him even where we question him. There is a time when we tire of sentimentality and delusion, and relish the sting of doubt and denial; and then Nietzsche comes to us as a tonic, like open spaces and fresh winds after a long ceremony in a crowded church. “He who knows how to breathe in the air of my writings is conscious that it is the air of the heights, that it is bracing. A man must be built for it; otherwise the chances are that it will kill him.” Let none mistake this acid for infant’s milk.

There is a time when we tire of sentimentality and delusion, and relish the sting of doubt and denial; and then Nietzsche comes to us as a tonic, like open spaces and fresh winds after a long ceremony in a crowded church.

And then what style! “People will say, some day, that Heine and I were the greatest artists, by far, that ever wrote in German, and that we left the best any mere German could do an incalculable distance behind us.” And it is almost so.* ”My style dances,” he says; every sentence is a lance; the language is supple, vigorous, nervous,—the style of a fencer, too quick and brilliant for the normal eye. But on rereading him we perceive that something of this brilliance is due to exaggeration, to an interesting but at last neurotic egotism, to an over-facile inversion of every accepted notion, the ridicule of every virtue, the praise of every vice; he takes, we discover, a sophomore’s delight in shocking; we conclude that it is easy to be interesting when one has no prejudices in favor of morality. These dogmatic assertions, these unmodified generalizations, these prophetic repetitions, these contradictions—of others not more than of himself—reveal a mind that has lost its balance, and hovers on the edge of madness. At last this brilliance tires us out and exhausts our nerves, like whips upon the flesh, or loud emphasis in conversation. There is a sort of Teutonic bluster in this violence of speech; none of that restraint which is the first principle of art; none of that balance, harmony, and controversial urbanity, which Nietzsche so admired in the French. Nevertheless is it a powerful style; we are overwhelmed with the passion and iteration of it; Nietzsche does not prove, he announces and reveals; he wins us with his imagination rather than with his logic; he offers us not a philosophy merely, nor yet only a poem, but a new faith, a new hope, a new religion.

* Nietzsche thought himself a Pole.

Something of Nietzsche’s brilliance is due to exaggeration. These dogmatic assertions reveal a mind that has lost its balance, and hovers on the edge of madness. Nevertheless it is a powerful style. Nietzsche offers us a new faith, a new hope, a new religion.

His thought, as much as his style, reveals him as a son of the Romantic movement. ”What,” he asks, “does a philosopher firstly and lastly require of himself? To overcome his age in himself, to become ‘timeless.'” But this was a counsel of perfection which he more honored in the breach than in the observance; he was baptized with the spirit of his age, and by total immersion. He did not realize how Kant’s subjectivism—“the world is my idea,” as Schopenhauer honestly put it—had led to Fichte’s “absolute ego,” and this to Stirner’s unbalanced individualism, and this to the unmoralism of the superman. The superman is not merely Schopenhauer’s “genius,” and Carlyle’s “hero,” and Wagner’s Siegfried; he looks suspiciously like Schiller’s Karl Moor and Goethe’s Gotz; Nietzsche took more than the word Uebermensch (superior humans) from the young Goethe whose later Olympian calm he scorned so enviously. His letters are full of romantic sentiment and tenderness; “I suffer” recurs in them almost as frequently as “I die” in Heine. He calls himself “a mystic and almost maenadic ‘soul,” and speaks of The Birth of Tragedy as “the confession of a romanticist.” “I am afraid,” he writes to Brandes, “that I am too much of a musician not to be a romanticist.” “An author must becomesilent when his work begins to speak”; but Nietzsche never conceals himself, and rushes into the first person on every page. His exaltation of instinct against thought, of the individual against society, of the “Dionysian” against the “Apollonian” (i. e., the romantic against the classic type), betrays his time as definitely as the dates of his birth and his death. He was, for the philosophy of his age, what Wagner was for its music,—the culmination of the Romantic movement, the high tide of the Romantic stream; he liberated and exalted the “will” and the “genius” of Schopenhauer from all social restraint, as Wagner liberated and exalted the passion that had torn at its classic bonds in the Sonata Pathetique and the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies. He was the last great scion of the lineage of Rousseau.

Nietzsche’s thought, as much as his style, reveals him as a son of the Romantic movement. His exaltation of instinct against thought, of the individual against society, of the “Dionysian” against the “Apollonian”, betrays his time as definitely as the dates of his birth and his death. He was the last great scion of the lineage of Rousseau.

Let us go back now on the road we have traveled with Nietzsche, and tell him, however ineffectually, some of the objections with which we were so often tempted to interrupt him. He was wise enough to see for himself, in his later years, how much absurdity had contributed to the originality of The Birth of Tragedy. Scholars like Wilamowitz-Moellendorff laughed the book out of the philologic court. The attempt to deduce Wagner from Aeschylus was the self-immolation of a young devotee before a despotic god. Who would have thought that the Reformation was “Dionysian”—i. e., wild, unmoral, vinous, Bacchanalian; and that the Renaissance was quite the opposite of these, quiet, restrained, moderate, “Apollonian”? Who would have suspected that “Socratism was the culture of the opera”? The attack on Socrates was the disdain of a Wagnerian for logical thought; the admiration for Dionysus was a sedentary man’s idolatry of action (hence also the apotheosis of Napoleon), and a bashful bachelor’s secret envy of masculine bibulousness and sexuality. 

Nietzsche was wise enough to see for himself, in his later years, how much absurdity had contributed to the originality of The Birth of Tragedy. Who would have thought that the Reformation was “Dionysian” and that the Renaissance was quite the opposite of these, quiet, restrained, moderate, “Apollonian”?

Perhaps Nietzsche was right in considering the pre-Socratic age as the halcyon days of Greece; no doubt the Peloponnesian War undermined the economic and political basis of Periclean culture. But it was a little absurd to see in Socrates only a disintegrating criticism (as if Nietzsche’s own function was not chiefly this) and not also a work of salvage for a society ruined less by philosophy than by war and corruption and immorality. Only a professor of paradox could rank the obscure and dogmatic fragments of Heraclitus above the mellowed wisdom and the developed art of Plato. Nietzsche denounces Plato, as he denounces all his creditors—no man is a hero to his debtor ; but what is Nietzsche’s philosophy but the ethics of Thrasymachus and Callicles, and the politics of Plato’s Socrates?—With all his philology, Nietzsche never quite penetrated to the spirit of the Greeks; never learned the lesson that moderation and self-knowledge (as taught by the Delphic inscriptions and the greater philosophers) must bank, without extinguishing, the fires of passion and desire; that Apollo must limit Dionysus. Some have described Nietzsche as a pagan; but he was not that: neither Greek pagan like Pericles nor German pagan like Goethe; he lacked the balance and restraint that made these men strong. “I shall give back to men the serenity which is the condition of all culture,” he writes, but alas, how can one give what one has not?

Nietzsche was not even a pagan for he lacked the balance and restraint that made men like Pericles and Goethe strong.

Of all Nietzsche’s books, Zarathustra is safest from criticism, partly because it is obscure, and partly because its inexpugnable merits dwarf all fault-finding. The idea of eternal recurrence, though common to the “Apollonian” Spencer as well as to the “Dionysian” Nietzsche, strikes one as unhealthy fancy, a weird last-minute effort to recover the belief in immortality. Every critic has seen the contradiction between the bold preachment of egoism (Zarathustra “proclaims the Ego whole and holy, and selfishness blessed”—an unmistakable echo of Stirner) and the appeal to altruism and self-sacrifice in the preparation and service of the superman. But who, reading this philosophy, will classify himself all servant, and not as superman?

Of all Nietzsche’s books, Zarathustra is safest from criticism, partly because it is obscure, and partly because its inexpugnable merits dwarf all fault-finding.

As for the ethical system of Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals, it is stimulating exaggeration. We acknowledge the need of asking men to be braver, and harder on themselves,—almost all ethical philosophies have asked that; but there is no urgent necessity for asking people to be crueler and “more evil”—surely this is a work of supererogation? And there is no great call to complain that morality is a weapon used by the weak to limit the strong; the strong are not too deeply impressed by it, and make rather clever use of it in turn: most moral codes are imposed from above rather than from below; and the crowd praises and blames by prestige imitation. It is well, too, that humility should be occasionally maltreated; “we have had deprecation and ducking long enough,” as the good gray poet said; but one does not observe any superabundance of this quality in modern character. Nietzsche here fell short of that historical sense which he lauded as so necessary to philosophy; or he would have seen the doctrine of meekness and humbleness of heart as a necessary antidote to the violent and warlike virtues of the barbarians who nearly destroyed, in the first millennium of the Christian era, that very culture to which Nietzsche always returns for nourishment and refuge. Surely this wild emphasis on power and movement is the echo of a feverish and chaotic age? This supposedly universal “will to power” hardly expresses the quiescence of the Hindu, the calm of the Chinese, or the satisfied routine of the medieval peasant. Power is the idol of some of us; but most of us long rather for security and peace.

Nietzsche here fell short of that historical sense which he lauded as so necessary to philosophy. Surely this wild emphasis on power and movement is the echo of a feverish and chaotic age? Power is the idol of some of us; but most of us long rather for security and peace.

In general, as every reader will have perceived, Nietzsche fails to recognize the place and value of the social instincts; he thinks the egoistic and individualistic impulses need reinforcement by philosophy! One must wonder where were Nietzsche’s eyes when all Europe was forgetting, in a slough of selfish wars, those cultural habits and acquisitions which he admired so much, and which depend so precariously on cooperation and social amenity and self-restraint. The essential function of Christianity has been to moderate, by the inculcation of an extreme ideal of gentleness, the natural barbarity of men; and any thinker who fears that men have been corrupted out of egoism into an excess of Christian virtue needs only to look about him to be comforted and reassured.

Nietzsche fails to recognize the place and value of the social instincts; he thinks the egoistic and individualistic impulses need reinforcement by philosophy!

Made solitary by illness and nervousness, and forced into war against the sluggishness and mediocrity of men, Nietzsche was led to suppose that all the great virtues are the virtues of men who stand alone. He reacted from Schopenhauer’s submergence of the individual in the species to an unbalanced liberation of the individual from social control. Foiled in his search for love, he turned upon woman with a bitterness unworthy of a philosopher, and unnatural in a man; missing parentage and losing friendship, he never knew that the finest moments of life come through mutuality and comradeship, rather than from domination and war. He did not live long enough, or widely enough, to mature his half-truths into wisdom. Perhaps if he had lived longer he would have turned his strident chaos into a harmonious philosophy. Truer of him than of the Jesus to whom he applied them, were his own words: “He died too early; he himself would have revoked his doctrine had he reached” a riper age; “noble enough to revoke he was!” But death had other plans.

Nietzsche was led to suppose that all the great virtues are the virtues of men who stand alone. He never knew that the finest moments of life come through mutuality and comradeship, rather than from domination and war. He did not live long enough, or widely enough, to mature his half-truths into wisdom. 

Perhaps in politics his vision is sounder than in morals. Aristocracy is the ideal government; who shall deny it? “O ye kind heavens! there is in every nation … a fittest, a wisest, bravest, best; whom could we find and make king over us, all were in truth well …. By what art discover him? Will the heavens in their pity teach us no art? For our need of him is great!” But who are the best? Do the best appear only in certain families, and must we therefore have hereditary aristocracy? But we had it; and it led to clique-pursuits, class-irresponsibility, and stagnation. Perhaps aristocracies have been saved, as often as destroyed, by intermarriage with the middle classes; how else has the English aristocracy maintained itself? And perhaps inbreeding degenerates? Obviously there are many sides to these complex problems, at which Nietzsche has flung so lustily his Yeas and Nays.* Hereditary aristocracies do not like world-unification; they tend to a narrowly nationalistic policy, however cosmopolitan they may be in conduct; if they abandoned nationalism they would lose a main source of their power the manipulation of foreign relations. And perhaps a world-state would not be so beneficial to culture as Nietzsche thinks; large masses move slowly; and Germany probably did more for culture when she was merely “a geographical expression,” with independent courts rivaling one another in the patronage of art, than in her days of unity and empire and expansion; it was not an emperor who cherished Goethe and rescued Wagner.

* “In my youth,” says Nietzsche somewhere, “I flung at the world with Yea and Nay; now in my oId age I do penance for it.”

Perhaps in politics his vision is sounder than in morals. Aristocracy is the ideal government; who shall deny it? But who are the best? Do the best appear only in certain families, and must we therefore have hereditary aristocracy?

It is a common delusion that the great periods of culture have been ages of hereditary aristocracy: on the contrary, the efflorescent periods of Pericles and the Medici and Elizabeth and the Romantic age were nourished with the wealth of a rising bourgeoisie; and the creative work in literature and art was done not by aristocratic families but by the offspring of the middle class;—by such men as Socrates, who was the son of a midwife, and Voltaire, who was the son of an attorney, and Shakespeare, who was the son of a butcher. It is ages of movement and change that stimulate cultural creation; ages in which a new and vigorous class is rising to power and pride. And so in politics: it would be suicidal to exclude from statesmanship such genius as lacked aristocratic pedigree; the better formula, surely, is a “career open to talent” wherever born; and genius has a way of getting born in the most outlandish places. Let us be ruled by all the best. An aristocracy is good only if it is a fluent body of men whose patent to power lies not in birth but in ability,—an aristocracy continually selected and nourished out of a democracy of open and equal opportunity to all.

An aristocracy is good only if it is a fluent body of men whose patent to power lies not in birth but in ability,—an aristocracy continually selected and nourished out of a democracy of open and equal opportunity to all.

After these deductions (if they must be made), what remains? Enough to make the critic uncomfortable. Nietzsche has been refuted by every aspirant to respectability; and yet he stands as a milestone in modern thought, and a mountain-peak in German prose. No doubt he was guilty of a little exaggeration when he predicted that the future would divide the past into “Before Nietzsche” and “After Nietzsche”; but he did succeed in effecting a wholesome critical review of institutions and opinions that for centuries had been taken for granted. It remains that he opened a new vista into Greek drama and philosophy; that he showed at the outset the seeds of romantic decadence in the music of Wagner; that he analyzed our human nature with a subtlety as sharp as a surgeon’s knife, and perhaps as salutary ; that he laid bare some hidden roots of morality as no other modern thinker had done;* that “he introduced a value hitherto practically unknown in the realms of ethics—namely, aristocracy”; that he compelled an honest taking of thought about the ethical implications of Darwinism; that he wrote the greatest prose poem in the literature of his century; and (this above all) that he conceived of man as something that man must surpass. He spoke with bitterness, but with invaluable sincerity; and his thought went through the clouds and cobwebs of the modern mind like cleansing lightning and a rushing wind. The air of European philosophy is clearer and fresher now because Nietzsche wrote.**

* Though of course the essentials of Nietzsche’s ethic are to be found in Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, La Rochefoucauld, and even in the Vautrln of Balzac’s Pere Goriot.

** The extensive influence of Nietzsche on contemporary literature will need no pointing out to those who are familiar with the writings of Artzibashef, Strindberg. Przybyszewski, Hauptmann, Dehmel, Hamsun, and d’ Annunzlo.

Nietzsche has been refuted by every aspirant to respectability; and yet he stands as a milestone in modern thought, and a mountain-peak in German prose. No doubt he was guilty of a little exaggeration, but the air of European philosophy is clearer and fresher now because Nietzsche wrote.

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