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?