In Defense of Nietzsche: Reading Nietzsche for Edification as a Christian; by Bob Kovacs

This is a response to a recent article in Commonweal.

FN [Friederich Nietzsche]  was on the Index of Forbidden Books. Very naughty.  Written as a flamethrower, the “errors” in FN are Legion: God-is-dead, atheism, amorality & immorality. Selfishness and self-centered-ness. The Ubermensch or Overman, Super-Man, later picked up by the Nazis. Gee, is this a thinker that we can really cozy up to?

When I first read FN as an undergrad at the School of Philosophy at CUA, we went over the above menu of uglies, but what we were all taught as most irksome about him was his lack of system. Obviously we were all supposed to be good little scholastic Aristotelian-Thomists, but our historic survey had to include the modern and post-modern Germans: Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Wittgenstein. The great idealists got increasingly strange, but at least you had the feeling that their difficulty was the reader’s fault; if only I’d worked harder and closer and paid attention better, maybe I could crack what their projects.

Contrariwise, somewhere in there was FN.

Okay, there is much to be upset about: the whole God question, the moral issues, the individual self, the “I” as primary. A suspicion against rationality, and a real thrust towards irrationality, the primacy of the emotions, rebellion against and hatred of any “teachings” or systems.

The writing though is so good.  It’s obviously not the Liturgy of the Hours or Scripture, but as a bedside book a page or two of FN at random will reliably yield pleasure, albeit a somewhat guilty pleasure.

The mis-readings and abuses of FN by the Nazis aren’t his fault. (Intellectually, are we really going to attempt a deep analysis of so-called “Nazi philosophy”?) And in our own day, Ayn Rand was immensely popular and her books are still all in print. But isn’t her philosophy of selfishness, “objectivism”, another, almost equally entertaining version of the Ubermensch? Zarathustra, meet Howard Roark. John Galt, all too human?

I am not advocating turning to FN as a guide. I recommend against requiring him in high school. Even in college the writings should be approached with caution. His falsehoods and untruths should be identified and called out.

Remember, epics begin as myths, wisdom and Scripture come from stories, art is supposed to enlighten us, even melodrama and best-sellers can point us to truth or God. It’s not just that FN is fun to read, it’s that his mad rantings aren’t so mad, and his rantings are frequently reasoned and, like good stand-up comedy, observational in nature. Compare, the Brit who bothers to consciously reject God and then struggles to re-build exactly the same morality. Or the German (Prussian) who can focus only on obedience and technology and militarism. Among opera fans the Wagnerians are their own cult, but didn’t FN dive right into that mess right at the time, when the follow-up work to the The Ring was the explicitly Christian Parsifal?


4 thoughts on “In Defense of Nietzsche: Reading Nietzsche for Edification as a Christian; by Bob Kovacs

  1. DISOWNED BYTHE AUTHOR! These are only rough “Loose Notes”. Yet to be polished, the prose buffed, the argument worked. Help from any reader — or by Otto! — would be much appreciated.

  2. Bob, I forget in which course it was we were introduced to Nietzsche. I would guess it was modern philosophy with Kensington or perhaps seminar with Prufer.

    Having almost no background or facility with philosophy, when I was introduced to Nietzsche I was literally dumb-founded. As a smart adolescent, I was attracted to his smooth speech and to his critical and sarcastic comments. Attraction to these things, as well as the requirement that we read his stuff and my desire to be obedient, forced me to read all of Nietzsche we were assigned. I seem to recall we used two books. One was an anthology. The other was, I think, Thus Spake Zarathustra. Anyway, these things caused me to do the reading.

    Spending time reading him, more and more often, I had the experience of feeling I understood something he had written. But then, after reflection and thinking, I realized I did not understand anything at all. In fact, I was not sure he intended to say any definite thing. His writing, it seemed was a verbal Rorschach test; a seeming something on which one could impose whatever one’s own thinking was.

    So, to my question and the beginning of our dialogue…was Nietzsche making assertions which he wanted us to understand and take seriously?


  3. That’s the problem. Is he writing a system, or not? Those little sound-bite aphorisms are fun, look great on postcards or motivational posters, but do they really carry enough meaning as part of a cohesive, comprehensive “philosophy”? “Philosophy with a hammer”: is he just writing just to stir things up? (I’ve always had that suspicion about Camille Paglia.) From where we sit, I think FN is a “jammer”, loud noise which obscures thought and reason, and forces us to use untold energies to properly respond. I repeat my earlier comments. High entertainment value, but otherwise approach with caution.

  4. Thanks for your post, Bob.

    I think I can succinctly state my problem with Frederich Nietzsche, and would appreciate your response to my statement (which is to follow) and your instruction in its regard. I do not clearly recall under which professor’s or professors tutelage we studied Nietzsche’s writings. It might have been Kennington, Prufer, maybe even Sokolowski. Regardless; if I were asked what Nietzsche’s philosophy was “about”, I would not be able to give a coherent answer. All I can remember are pithy remarks he made in response to other philosophies, statements, and issues.

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