When I first began my philosophical studies ages ago at the University of Texas (Hook Em!), three philosophers gripped my attention: Plato, Nietzsche and Parmenides. With any true love, an ember always remains long after the fire burns out. I never lost my love of Plato, nor Parmenides, and I will always be in the debt of Paul Woodruff, Professor of Philosophy and Classics at UT, for having introduced me to both. Nietzsche on the other hand...
It was late great philosopher Louis Mackey who, in a course called 'God and Man' made me read Niezsche for the first time. Niezsche's challenge to conventional morality, his joyful maliciousness, and his love of individualism, of turning things upside down, all griped the young Hanno. I began a serious study of his work, but quickly found myself reading, but not understanding. I spent an entire summer working my way through Niezsche's 'Beyond Good and Evil' as well as other pieces, and while I a was amused, I was not any the wiser. I felt the content disappear the closer I read.
And I became disenchanted with just what I was reading. The abolition of morality as a value scheme sounds fine when you do not like the rules of morality, but when you think about its consequences, it is uncomfortable at best. Mackey told me once that there was no need to worry about 'what if everyone thought like that,' because not everyone would think like that. Only those who can challenge morality are able to do so, and the vast numbers of people are closer to sheep, living in the way only sheep can live. While that makes some sense, I began to fear the non-sheep among us, and that fear was greater than my youthful chaffing under the rules I did not ask for and did not particularly like. After I read other philosophers, like Hume, I began to see those rules as far more important than I understood before. I turned from Nietzsche, and I studied him only in passing while in Graduate school.
But I never left him entirely. When I taught my first Introduction to Philosophy, I was able to choose any works and any theme whatsoever to teach. Much to my surprise, I choose Nietzsche as part of the course, and it has stayed there for 20 years. In the beginning, I loved the reaction he got, but my lectures were empty. I could not teach for more than 1 week in him, as I ran out of things to say. I remember one test question I asked was 'Nietzsche sure is fun to read, but is there anything to what he is saying?' The question itself shows how dismissively I took his writing. Yet I still taught him, and read him.
I did learn in graduate school (from the noted Nietzsche scholar Alexander Nahamas), that there was more to what I read than I thought, but it still seems awful, and false. Nietzsche, I was told, did not believe in truth at all, but in perspectives. He was no a relativist, however, as he believed that some perspectives are better than others. All value was the product of an perspective, of an interpretation of the world, and there was no way around this. The critique of morality lies not on its being false (that would be inconsistent), but in its origin, which was the product of weak, sickly minds, the sheep huddled together for protection. Maybe, I thought. But what serious alternatives are there? The values of the wolf? Indeed, it seemed as if Nietzsche wanted us to return to some barbaric warrior ethos. A moral scheme that raping and pillaging and using/destroying the weak seems straightforwardly misguided. But was that what Nietzsche was advocating? To be sure, many read him that way.
I will in the coming weeks try to make sense of some of Nietzsche's writing, and show that there is more to his view than the idiotic love of 'strength,' whatever that may mean. Stay tuned.