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Please imagine this conversation between Plato and Nietzsche.
Plato has just finished reading Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. He paces the room. Herr Nietzsche is sitting ceremoniously on the brown couch, stroking his mustache. Plato closes the book and smirks…
— A free spirit is… Plato says.
— No Plato. Nietzsche interrupts. They are not like those philosophers in the cave. Free spirits do not believe in all that otherworldly Scheiße.
— For Zeus sake Herr Nietzsche. Relax now. A free spirit is… at the top of the hierarchy.
— Yes, at the top.
— It is not easy. Making myself understood is very hard.
— That was 1886. Perhaps you can try again. It is 2016…
Nietzsche: Let me begin by saying what a free spirit is not.
[N glances at Plato] Will you sit down, Plato, and listen, and quit looking toward the "heavens"!
[Plato sits next to Nietzsche on the brown couch]
Plato: Ahh, this is comfortable. Your couch participates in the Form of comfortable couchness, Nietzsche.
N: Don't get me started on Forms! [P gestures that he will be silent]
Thank you. Firstly, those who have been falsely named free spirits are men committed to democratic ideals. They have courage and moral respectability, but are unfree and superficial in their sympathy for all that suffers. They search after the herd ideals of "security, safety, comfort and an easier life for all." They are all men without solitude, and they stand opposed to what free spirits endorse: experimentation without limits, and a stance beyond good and evil which N: People who are afraid to BECOME what they are capable of becoming.
The free spirit recognizes that all which has been deemed evil and tyrannical in man does at least as much to enhance the species as all that has been deemed safe and therefore good. In a word, [a technical term in my philosophy] these false free spirits, like your reason-seeking, fetter-breaking, cave-leaving philosopher kings are Hühnerkacke.
P: I don't understand "Hühnerkacke" – what do you have in mind, Nietzsche?
N: People who are afraid to BECOME what they are capable of becoming.
In his The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche (1844-1900) tells the story of King Midas hunting in the forest for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus. After many years, the King succeeds in capturing him and asks what is the best and most desirable thing for human beings. Silenus laughing, says, 'Oh, wretched ephemeral race … why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is—to die soon.'
This tragic vision of the human condition is riddled with despair. How did Nietzsche arrive at such a description? How did Nietzsche progress from a young Christian believer to the naturalistic philosopher we know today? Blue's book helps to answer that question by concentrating on those early formative years and employing many of his subject's own autobiographical memoirs and journals. "This biography", he writes, "is traditional in the sense that it provides a narrative account of his early years, beginning before he was born and chronicling his development up to the age of twenty-four." Blue focuses on the many autobiographical writings that the young Nietzsche wrote about his life and his educational goals. Throughout those documents we learn about an introspective and creative young man who lost his father at an early age and was raised by his young mother and his grandmother. In an interview Blue says of these documents, "They reveal a project he began in early adolescence and was still pursuing at least as late as 1869. Being fatherless and skeptical of his mother's competence, Nietzsche believed that he must see to his own upbringing. Accordingly, he didn't just accept his formation and education. He intervened self-consciously to direct it himself. Many readers will already be aware of his motto, "Become what you are," an expression he first coined at the age of 22. Yet he had been pursuing an analogous ambition since at least the age of thirteen, and in my book I show how he discovered it, pursued it, changed course as warranted, and brought it to a largely successful conclusion, although he somewhat outsmarted himself at the end."
Blue was asked in the interview to describe the book in three words. His answer? "Nietzsche's own version." This seems appropriate, for as one reads the book one feels privy to a mind struggling to learn, to find a life's work, and to become.
Many people today know Nietzsche only by a slogan or two: "God is dead" or "Instinct is best" and one of the virtues of Blue's book is that it brings into clear focus the early and formative years of one of the 19th century's greatest philosophers. Nietzsche, of course, has been misread and misinterpreted ever since his death in 1900. I can remember the pastor in the Lutheran church back in the late 1940s sermonizing against existentialism and especially against Nietzsche for his apostasy and for his "superman" claims, which according to the pastor led directly to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany.
We know better now because of the wide availability of scholarly works on Nietzsche showing that it was his sister, not he, who, by editing his works, brought them into line with the Nazi ideology, which Nietzsche did not support in word or deed. Nietzsche scholarship has made impressive progress over the last thirty years, with lots of excellent work now available to help puzzled readers understand Nietzsche's provocative writing.
Blue shows us the young man growing into the philosopher by emphasizing Nietzsche's very human young man's question "Who am I?" and by building a soul, a character, through study and action as he awakens to the joys of learning. The intellectual journey includes experiences in boarding school, advanced education, and the influential works that inspired the young Nietzsche. These include Schopenhauer, the early Greeks, and Emerson.
Each of the fourteen chapters has a Nietzschean aphorism at its head and then uses that comment as a theme to be unpacked and exhibited. We are shown the growth of the young man from the early days of the certainty of the Christian system, to his Confirmation, and then to the slow erosion of that faith to a naturalistic and existential position. Nietzsche's emphasis and |Blue's description of that emphasis is on growing a soul. Divinity and spirit are to be found not through blind faith but through finding and sending down roots to the deepest part of one's unique self. As is true in botany, those roots spread out into the wider community and can nourish us and give us a healthy life. How do we know when we are living in the best place for those roots to grow? In so much as we do indeed "grow a soul" we should consider carefully the garden in which that soul grows.
Nietzsche scholarship is rich with biographies, interpretation, and speculation. Blue's book is a first-class contribution to that body of work and a starting point for anyone interested in understanding Nietzsche.
© 2016 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is professor emeritus in philosophy at Vancouver Island University and the author of Reading the Bible: Intention, Text, Interpretation.