Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review: The Portable Nietzsche

Nietzsche, F. Wilhelm. (1954). The portable Nietzsche. New York: Viking Press.

In my view, Nietzsche is one of the most original and influential philosophers of recent times. Portable Nietzsche by Walter Kaufmann has four of Nietzsche’s unabridged works (Thus spoke Zarathustra, Twilight of the idols, The antichrist, and Nietzsche contra Wagner), as well as passages from his other works and some of his letters. I truly enjoyed reading it. Although I had read (I had attempted to read I should say) Nietzsche when I was much younger, this time I felt I got a much better sense of his philosophy.

Make no mistake: it is difficult to read Nietzsche (though, I should say definitely not as difficult as reading Kant). His style is very different from other philosophers and it takes some time getting used to. Some of his passages are difficult to understand because of his frequent use of metaphors and stylistic experiments. But overall, I found it very stimulating to read his work. Page after page, Nietzsche provides crushing criticism of the society of his time, and to a large extent our modern society. He makes crucial points and he communicates his ideas strongly.

“Men must be overcome” Nietzsche says. “From the greatest men to the smallest men, I find all men to be all too human” he says. “I have looked for great men but I have always found men who were apes of their ideals” he says. These are very strong statements. I will not try to describe in detail what Nietzsche means by these statements. But just to summarize: Nietzsche is very skeptical of the moral values and concepts of good and evil of the society. He sees individuals to be largely shaped by the moral values of the society they live in, without actually questioning and reflecting on those moral values.

To give a concrete example: we usually view the lives of little children to be simple. Their whole life is governed by simple concepts: hunger, thirst, play, sleep and so on. Nietzsche views most adults of the modern society in exactly the same way. He finds that people usually settle down on a number of ideals, and then they spend their whole life trying to satisfy the urges that result from these ideals.

For example, in my view, Nietzsche would criticize the scientists in the following way: First of all, scientists think that science is good: that is, it is a very worthwhile effort. We usually do not question this assumption. We also think that our particular sub-field of science is a particularly exciting area to pursue. We follow a few scientific traditions that were established in the 1600’s. For example, most of use mathematical equations as our main guiding model. So this way we form our ideals. For example, as an atomic physicist, my ideals are: “Science is good, atomic physics is particularly good, mathematical equations are the best approach”. From these, I form some sub-ideals: “Solving this particular problem is good, getting funding is good, writing papers is good” and so on. I then spend my whole life trying to optimize the objectives in these ideals. When it is laid out this way, really, how different am I from a little child? Also, are these really my ideals? How much of this was imposed on me by the society? How much did I reflect on and question these ideals before I let my whole life to be completely shaped by them?

If these arguments have captured your interest, I highly recommend that you read Portable Nietzsche by Kaufmann.

It is also interesting (and somewhat sad) to learn that Nietzcshe was completely ignored and mocked by his colleagues during his time (roughly between 1870-1890). He could not find any publisher for his books, and he would usually print a few tens of copies using his own means and send it to his friends. Yet, now, he is widely considered to be one of the most original thinkers of his time. 

Submitted by Deniz Yavuz

Copies of this book at UW-Madison Libraries

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