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Monday, January 19, 2009

Friedrich Nietzsche: "Why I am So Wise"

It seems such a broad jump from Marcus Aurelius to Friedrich Nietzsche, but this is precisely what I want this year to be--a broad spectrum of the best philosophical ideas in the canon of literature and philosophy. It is difficult to objectify the use of the word "best" to describe Nietzsche's premises and ideas. This is mainly so because there has been a vast (or at least there was in the first half of the 20th Century) misinterpretation of his philosophy. That what he thought of and wrote he did so to raise some eyebrows (that's an understatement) I would totally agree with. However, there's more than meets the eye with Nietzsche, and this little book, "Why I am So Wise", is not only insightful but thought-altering if approached with an open mind. The book is primarily a collection of segments from "Ecce Homo," and "Twilight of the Idols," with a meshing of other ideas in between. For example, Zarathustra is featured prominently throughout. I was most impressed (as I always am) with Nietzsche's willingness to go beyond the propriety of clicheist ideas. This not only applies to religion and Christianity particularly, but also to his ideas about music, nationalism and ethnic identity, among other topics. I believe his fallout with Richard Wagner started with the realization that this idea of the metaphysics in art is just as much a sham as the facade of peace and safety religion offers. I remember reading a quote by Nietzsche some years ago in which he stated clearly that music was not what people make it out to be (to speak of the higher soul, of the inner self, of metaphysical phenomena), but rather that music was simply and most concretely mathematical formulae. This, of course, is the deconstructionist Nietzsche, not the lover of "Tristan und Isolde" (until he changed his mind, that is).

I suppose that one could compare Nietzsche and Marcus Aurelius at least in the opinion of both thinkers as to how to approach pain, suffering and hardship. As a stoic, Marcus Aurelius believed that pain (whether emotional or physical, but I suppose more in terms of physical) manifested itself in two ways. First, you would feel it and stand it or put up with it. Secondly, if pain became unbearable, then you would just die... and then have nothing to worry about. Comparatively, Nietzsche embraced hardship and pain and reeled against the "fake" sense of security religion/Christianity offered. An excellent film (and I can't say it with more emphasis: EXCELLENT) by British philosopher Alain de Botton entitled Nietzsche on Hardship is available for FREE at Google videos. This little video is supremely accurate in introducing Nietzsche's anti-religious ideas and the fact that the alternative is not as dark as many have interpreted to be. For example, is not that as individuals we should seek the hardship, but that once it arrives we shouldn't run away from it, or try to placate it with religious belief or liquor. Despite the fact that this sounds like a false analogy (liquor and religion), Nietzsche examines them at the same level and (at least to him) they seem to offer the same reward. I know there's a reason why this idea of "religion as the panacea of the world" has been around for as long as it has... it is no mistake... whether you like him or not, Nietzsche is a genius. Hardship is part of the human condition; to deny it is to deny part of yourself.

Just like with Marcus Aurelius, I have underlined and written too much marginalia with Nietzsche to be included here, but several passages stand out more than others. For example, when examining one's own failures and defeats throughout life

"... [E]ven the blunders of life--the temporary sidepaths and wrong turnings, the delays, the 'modesties,' the seriousness squandered on tasks which lie outside the task--have their own meaning and value. They are an expression of a great sagacity, even the supreme sagacity: where nosce te ipsum [know thyself] would be a recipe for destruction, self-forgetfulness, self-misunderstanding, self-diminution, narrowing, mediocratizing become reason itself."

Most of the language throughout is metaphoric, so the reading is hard going to someone not familiar with the style. For example, most of the title segment "Why I am So Wise" could be interpreted as an attack on the religious and metaphysical, but one can't take the words on the page literally. Doing so will result in missing most of the meaning and I believe this has happened in my previous readings of Nietzsche as it happens to most people who misinterpret his anti-religious views. Along side this interpretation is the Nazi misappropriation of Nietzsche's ideas. Despite the fact that that seems a topic in its own right, and I rather not elaborate too much here, I do have to remind the readers of this blog about Nietzsche's sister management of his literary estate and how she literally gave full permission to the Nazis to interpret the "Will to Power" to fit their demented philosophy of the master race. But let's not bash the Nazis... I'll let the History Channel do that for me.

Next on the list is my re-reading of Will Durant's "The Story of Philosophy." I will try to write the blog entries by "Unit" (meaning chronological school of thought format) hoping it will develop into a good resource for those researching philosophy online. The only question I have is which one of my two copies to use... my trusty old 1950s paperback or my hardcover 1920s copy. There's some hardship on that choice... uhmmm.

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