Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the most remarkable philosophers of all time, irrespective or whether he happened to have written in the nineteenth century. In fact, he has more in common with pre-Socratic thinkers like Heraclitus, born two and a half thousand years ago in Ephesos on the Aegean. Did not Aristotle gloss his great work, On Nature, in order to inform us that seething beneath all agency is the reality of Fire . . . or pure energy? Yet another example of the fact that ancient theory and modern physics seem to run on parallel lines.
Nietzsche – to speak of his own life – came from a long line of Lutheran pastors, and there remains a decidedly Protestant cast to his thought. Born in 1844, he specialized in classical philology, wrote his thesis on Theognis, an aristocratic radical, and found himself offered a professorship at the tender age of 24! Enoch Powell happened to be granted a similar academic posting, in Australia, at the same age. Nor need it surprise us that Powell was heavily influenced by Nietzsche, before a decisive turn back to Anglicanism à la T. S. Eliot.
Nietzsche’s first act involved blowing his own discipline wide open. This resulted from issuing The Birth of Tragedy from the press. It effectively sought to kill off his own specialism with one sword thrust to the heart. In it, he posited the dialectic of Apollonian vis-à-vis Dionysian in Greek theater, placed Aeschylus above the other tragedians, and sought in the shambles of the House of Atreus a solution to Western decadence. Like a mortician, he dissected contemporary mores, found them wanting, and offered Wagnerian opera as a lance to an ever-present boil. He soon dispensed with this, given the perennial Christian stance in Parsifal. His Grail lay elsewhere.
How to sum up his thinking? When we recall that the Karl Schlechta edition, in its pomp, runs to eighteen volumes, including poetry and letters. He even composed music, although, rather like Anthony Burgess, it has never been performed. Perhaps, reminiscent of Alex in A Clockwork Orange, he could always hear the threnody welling up in his own ears?
First up, he declared that God is dead in men’s minds, and that mortal life must be totally visualized at our level. Second, he asserted the non-normative or spendthrift quality of truth, but denied relativism through the epistemology of a Strong Man’s hammer. Rather like the circus, did not life beat out its meaning on a purposive anvil? Next, or third in our trajectory, he uttered the prophecy of the Superman; the one who exists beyond Good and Evil, and who will recreate intention by utilizing the masses as putty. Contrary to democratic license, he sees life as quintessentially divided into masters and slaves. Which group do you identify with, or, in the words of the Kentucky miners’ anthem from the nineteen-forties, ‘whose side are you on, boy, whose side are you on?’ To follow: he notates Will to Power, or desire to control energy within a form, as a relocation of teleology or future perfect. If we might adapt the Tofflers, it is not a future shock — merely a shocking future. Again, and to close, he requires all of this to be foregrounded by the Endless Return, so as to cheat death by a karmic insistence not on reincarnation but on Renaissance.
To him, existence was a bullet passing through screens, life is death, all circumstances recur, ethical insight remains pagan, aesthetics constitutes a new master class, pity can be characterized as the sentimentality of worms, and Spencer’s natural fallacy isn’t one. In other words, Might constitutes right, the world is as it should be, heroic struggle mitigates stoicism, and suffering must be lightly borne with aristocratic sang-froid. It might even be Schadenfreude . . . For him, Christianity as a mass faith will perish, but the little people deeply require it as a socialist opiate, held aloft with feminine compassion, and beholden to one Hippy’s auto da fé.
All of these ideas were put forward in a series of books, from Untimely Meditations to Ecce Homo, the autobiography at life’s end. An existence whose closure, almost scripted by Theodore Dreiser and Jack London, ended in madness due to tertiary syphilis. Contrary to the thesis of My Sister and I, a forgery, this was probably contracted from a brothel during his student days. Try to imagine the thesis of Ibsen’s Ghosts, when crossed with the anti-metaphysics of Epstein’s Rock-drill.
For Nietzsche, unlike Evola in his revolt against modernity, preaches a type of modernism which is subtly different. One that revolves around an illiberal and elitist rendition of modern life — its acceptance, its merging in, its energization, its over-coming. Finally, accompanied by the eagle who evinces courage and the pet snake who beguiles wisdom, Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s Aryan sage, wanders out into the mountains to face Life.
A signification of death . . . or is it the coming of a great Noon-time?