Beyond Good and Evil | Study Guide

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

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Beyond Good and Evil | Context


Nietzsche's Co-option by the Nazis

Nietzsche became the darling of the Nazi Party—a 20th century German nationalist movement that supported systemic racism—thanks to his sister Elisabeth, a virulent anti-Semite who was also friends with the family of German composer Richard Wagner. She met her anti-Semitic husband, Bernhard Förster, through the Wagners and later went to South America with him to found an anti-Semitic community in 1887. Nietzsche disapproved of her marriage to this man as well as her anti-Semitism. Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, more than anyone, is responsible for Nietzsche being identified as an anti-Semite, even into the middle of the 20th century. Nietzsche went mad in 1889, and his sister returned from South America after her husband committed suicide that same year. At first Nietzsche was cared for in clinics, but he went home with his mother in 1890 and remained with her until her death in 1897. Elisabeth took charge of her brother for the last three years of his life, also taking charge of his works and establishing an archive at Naumburg, where they grew up.

Nietzsche's writings brought Elisabeth fame and money, and he had left behind unpublished manuscripts as well as voluminous notes never meant to be published. She took it upon herself to delete passages from his writings that she didn't agree with and add others. Most importantly, she created one book from his unpublished work called The Will to Power, which distorted his philosophical position. Elisabeth forged letters as well. She also identified him as an anti-Semite, and since she outlived him by many years (Nietzsche died in 1900), Elisabeth became the last word on his work until she died. When she died in 1935, German dictator Adolf Hitler attended her funeral. By then Hitler was the leader of the fascist German state that would be responsible for the Holocaust. Only after Elisabeth's death did scholars begin to uncover her distortions and forgeries.

The Nazis appropriated certain ideas within Nietzsche's philosophy that could easily be misunderstood when taken out of context. No doubt, because of his complexity combined with his sometimes incendiary style, the Nazis could point to statements Nietzsche made and identify him as an inspiration for their perverse cause. For example, they used his idea of the overman—whom they called the superman—and conflated that idea with the false notion of themselves as Aryans, an idea Nietzsche makes fun of in Beyond Good and Evil. While the continental Europeans largely underappreciated Nietzsche early on, the translations and lobbying of American German philosopher Walter Kaufmann restored Nietzsche to respectability in Great Britain and the United States.

Nietzsche's Friendship with Richard Wagner

Although Nietzsche had heard Richard Wagner's music in his teens, he became a disciple in October 1868, when he first listened to a performance of two of Wagner's opera preludes. He met the composer less than two weeks later and discovered they were both disciples of the German philosopher Arthur Schoepenhauer. Wagner was also born in the same year as Nietzsche's father, who died before Nietzsche turned five. At age 24, after growing up in a household of women, Nietzsche gravitated toward a father figure. Nietzsche associated Wagner with the great classical Greek tragedians and thought he would recreate the kind of cultural climate in Germany in which great tragedy would be born again. This theory is part of Nietzsche's thesis in his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy (1872).

Richard Wagner was both a famous and controversial figure—a composer of operas but also a radical who had been exiled for a time for participating in a revolution. He was also a musical theorist, revolutionizing the method of operatic composition. He continues to be considered an important figure in music, and some musical historians say his Tristan und Isolde is the first piece of modern classical music. His strong views on nationalism and his anti-Semitism influenced the cultural climate of Europe, and Wagner himself was something of a cult figure.

Nietzsche had a falling out with Wagner and his wife Cosima in 1876 over a review Nietzsche wrote on Wagner and his music. In the review Nietzsche praised Wagner's music but disparaged his character, calling him a Minotaur in a labyrinth, an image that he uses in Beyond Good and Evil in a more general context. Nietzsche may have grown tired of Wagner's outsized ego, and he was also disgusted with Wagner for returning to Christianity. During the same period, Nietzsche lost his admiration for Schopenhauer. In retaliation the Wagners began circulating nasty rumors about Nietzsche's sexuality. Afterward Nietzsche continued to mock Wagner in print, although he also continued to admire him in private. In Beyond Good and Evil he both praises Wagner's genius in Part 8 but then faults himself for falling into his "old loves and narrowness" in embracing some "hearty fatherlandishness" in his praise of his old mentor. He also indirectly criticizes the Wagners for their anti-Semitism and nationalism in the same chapter. Still, Wagner cast a long shadow over Nietzsche, and as Nietzschean scholar Michael Tanner points out, Wagner is the person mentioned most often in the philosopher's writings and embodies for him an archetype of the German spirit—both positive and negative.

Nietzsche and Women

The charge of misogyny has been laid at Nietzsche's door, based mostly on the derogatory remarks he makes about women in his books—with the worst of them perhaps appearing in Beyond Good and Evil. But as Nietzschean scholar and feminist Maudemarie Clark points out, these rants against women, feminism, and the "eternal feminine" are likely one of the philosopher's masks under which he hides his true intentions. Given the section that prefaces his attack on women at the end of Part 7, it appears he is demonstrating to the reader that he is aware that his "truths" about women are mere prejudices. Maudemarie Clark argues that the misogyny in Beyond Good and Evil is "on the level of sentiment, not belief" and that Nietzsche uses it to "illustrate points he is trying to make about philosophy and the will to truth." She further suggests that Nietzsche is challenging feminists to exhibit the virtue of honesty he shows in exposing his misogyny. Nietzsche prefaces his statements about women with the caveat that he is expressing "my truths," meaning his convictions, which by the tenets of his own philosophy are limited and one-sided.

Nietzsche did speak out against feminism in his time, but then again he also criticized just about everything else as well. According to Julian Young, who wrote Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (2010), Nietzsche was actually sympathetic to the feminist cause until he was rejected by Lou Salomé, a young Russian woman he fell in love with. Nonetheless, almost all of the women he was friends with after 1883 were feminists, including his earliest English translator, Helen Zimmern. Moreover, feminist scholars have been drawn to his work because of his message of human liberation. This is not to say that Nietzsche did not have ambivalent feelings about women; he certainly did. Like most people, Nietzsche was a collection of contradictions, and given his breadth of intellect, his contradictions would have been complicated. But it is clearly a mistake to paint him categorically as anti-female.

Translations of Nietzsche

According to Nietzschean scholar Michael Tanner, Nietzsche was "extensively, and mostly inaccurately, translated into English ... in the early years of the 20th century," and no other translations were available for about 50 years. This also added to his tarnished reputation in the United States in addition to the charges of anti-Semitism because of his sister Elisabeth's propaganda. Walter Kaufmann, a German-Jewish immigrant and philosopher who landed at Princeton University after World War II, began translating Nietzsche's works. As a result, Nietzsche could now be accurately read by English and American scholars. Meanwhile in Europe, Nietzsche was widely read after World War II (1939–45) and studied by the existentialist philosophers and phenomenologists, such as Jean Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger. While Walter Kaufmann's translations have been the definitive ones for many years, additional reliable translations are now available.

Philosophical Sparring Partners in Beyond Good and Evil

The Greek Philosophers

Nietzsche objected to Greek philosopher Plato's metaphysical ideas about the basis of reality: that anything in the world of appearance has a correspondence with a perfect archetype of that same thing in the world of forms. Moreover, Plato believed that the apparent reality was less real than the transcendental reality, which is immaterial. He also believed that people could get access to that "real" world through the exercise of reason. In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche makes fun of Plato's idea of "the Good," from which all other forms originate. He also disliked the Neo-Platonists, from whom, at the end of the 4th century, the Christians first borrowed the idea of a transcendental God. He admired Plato's teacher Socrates as an honest philosopher, and he clearly separates Plato and Socrates in Beyond Good and Evil, implying that Plato enhanced his teacher's ideas with the metaphysical concept of "the Good."

Descartes and Spinoza

René Descartes was an important French rationalist philosopher who invented "Cartesian dualism." In this philosophy, Descartes proposed the idea that the mind and body are separate, discrete entities, and that one can exist without the other. Descartes sought to come up with a way to reconcile science and religion in his philosophy, but he never satisfactorily explained how his two substances interact in a human body. Nietzsche indirectly critiques Descartes when he deconstructs the idea "I think," since Descartes was famous for the axiom, "I think, therefore I am." For Nietzsche language often masks more than it reveals, which a philosopher can hardly take for granted. In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche gives Descartes credit for being the father of rationalism, but he calls him superficial—not surprisingly—since Nietzsche does not accept his soul substance.

Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza was another rationalist who attempted to use mathematics to resolve the problems with Descartes's metaphysics—his idea of soul substance and the consequent split of the mind and body resulting from his dualism. In the process, Spinoza equated nature with God and got himself into trouble with both the Jewish and Christian authorities. Spinoza ends up with a form of rationalism tinged with mysticism when he concludes that humans do not have a privileged perspective and no more dignity than anything else in nature. Humans must come to love everything, meaning loving God, which he equates with knowledge of God. Nietzsche objected to Spinoza's mysticism and belief in God. In his writings Nietzsche accuses Spinoza of unclear thinking and rejects his attempt to use mathematics to support his metaphysics.

Emmanuel Kant

German philosopher Emmanuel Kant sought to rescue the philosophy of rationalism from the British philosopher David Hume's radical empiricism, which argued that all human knowledge is based on the experience of the senses. Thus, knowledge must be traced back either to (1) direct perception or (2) abstract reasoning about ideas derived from experience. Hume claimed that all propositions are either analytic (matters of reason) or synthetic (matters of fact). Kant modified these ideas, coming up with the notion that there could be such a thing as a priori synthetic knowledge, or matters of fact that are known based on intuitive knowledge—such as knowledge of space and time. For Nietzsche, this smacked of metaphysics, as did Kant's "categorical imperative," the idea that certain unconditional requirements exist and remain the same in all circumstances.

Arthur Schopenhauer

In his writings, Nietzsche spends a lot of time disparaging philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer's ideas, but in fact his own philosophy owes a large debt to the pessimistic German. Emmanuel Kant had posited a "noumenal," nonmaterial world behind the phenomenal world (derived through the senses rather than the mind), although he said human beings could not know it. Still, Kant was essentially an optimist and thought of the noumenal world as benign. Schopenhauer agreed with Kant that there was a reality behind the apparent world, but for him it was not pretty. Rather, he posited an inexorable force called "will"—both a creator and destroyer—which always want more and more. This will drives human beings in the service of procreation and destruction. Moreover, they are forever at its mercy. The best a human being can do in the face of this will is to get away from it briefly with respites of "disinterested contemplation." For Schopenhauer, this can be accomplished by listening to certain types of music. Nietzsche uses Schopenhauer's concept of the will to fashion his own ideas about the will to power, which is also an inexorable force. However, Nietzsche posits it as something positive that should be embraced by human beings. He also does not attribute metaphysical qualities to the will to power, although it can be argued that the will to power has the scent of Kant's noumenal world. In a sense Nietzsche's philosophy is largely a counter-statement against Schopenhauer's pessimism.

British Utilitarians

The first of the British Utilitarians was Jeremy Bentham, followed by John Stuart Mill and others. Utilitarian philosophy was a system of ethics based on the principle that the best action is the one that is most useful to the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism presupposes the idea that happiness (well-being) is the highest value. Utilitarian ideas are diametrically opposed to Nietzsche's idea about the value of suffering as well as his dislike of herd morality. Nietzsche accuses the Utilitarians of being hypocrites and simply wanting to impose English morality on the world.

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