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Like any well-educated person, I was taught and struggled to comprehend Nietzsche. Like any well-adjusted person the struggle didn't seem worthwhile so was always content to just park him in the cultural corner of secular moral relativism that helped produce Nazism and other isms. But that, while adequate, is an unthinking reaction and it would be nice to have a more reasoned way of thinking about a philosopher who had such undeniable influence. Professor Nehamas here provides the reader with a lens through which to comprehend Nietzsche and his project. While it leaves him in that dead-end corner, it makes comprehensible the unity of Nietzsche's writings and his failure.

In the first place, the author argues that the whole of Nietzsche can be read as a contest with Socrates. In this dichotomy, Socrates is the avatar or reason and the dream that Man can discover objective truth and morality by the pure exercise of the rational mind. Nietzsche, quite correctly, recognized that reason can do no such thing and instead plumped for perspectivism, that we can never remove our own subjectivity from the equation and so can never achieve objective knowledge:
Socrates of course always pursues his goal personally and in conversation, while Nietzsche is the most writerly of philosophers. Socrates believes that not enough questions have been asked, while Nietzsche is afraid that too many answers have been given. Socrates considers self-knowledge at least the beginning if not the very content of the good life, while Nietzsche denies that in Socrates' sense there is either a self that can be known or a knowledge that can capture it. Socrates thinks that action must be grounded in objectice value, while Nietzsche urges that values are created through actions. Socrates considers explicit and articulate rational understanding the greatest and most distinguishing human achievement, while Nietzsche laments that "the task of incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive is only beginning to dawn on the human eye and it is not yet clearly discernible."
In the absence of objective standards or even the possibility of objective standards--other than those imposed by force, with no basis in "truth" undergirding them--Nietzsche relies on that "instinct"--of course, his own instinct--as the means by which he, and other superior beings, may move beyond even the concepts of good and evil and simply intuit the correct manner of acting.

Having established this hostility to claims of objective truth as the basis for Nietzsche's entire ouvre, Mr. Nehamas has a through line that he can also use to explain the philosopher's notorious anti-religious writings. After all, consider Christ: "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life." From Nietzsche's perspective, it is not, in the first instance, the content of Christianity that needs to be raged against but its claim to the very objective truth that his personal philosophy denies exists. It is the fact of Christianity--or of Judaism or what have you--that he must rebel against just as surely as he does against the practice of philosophy as an attempt to glean truth.

Next Mr. Nehamas must consider why, if his insights about Nietzsche are valid, the philosopher did not come right out and say so. Here Nietzsche bumped up against the paradox that is always fatal to relativists, their inability to enunciate an objective positive morality means that they can only ever define themselves in relation to their foe:
Nietzsche's problem is that he wants to attack the tradition to which he belongs and also escape it. An explicit attack [...] would perpetuate that tradition. A complete escape from it directly into art (something he did consider at times) would simply change the subject but leave the tradition intact. Nietzsche wants to warn others against dogmatism without taking a dogmatic stand himself. His unparalleled solution to this problem is to try consciously to fashion a literary character out of himself and a literary work out of his life.
Nietzsche is the hero of this text, so that literary character and work are treated pretty gently, but, elsewhere, even the author concedes the reality of that character: "Nietzsche was thought to have a very bad life because he was completely ignored, he was very sick most of his life, he had continuous migraines, he never found a woman he could marry, he was in love with a woman but she wasn’t interested in him, he had very few friends and had not very much money." And, as he concedes in this book:
Nietzsche's own moral view, then, is banal, vague, inconsistent with his view on knowledge, and perhaps even internally incoherent. [...] His ambitious aim is to undermine the moral tradition.
So, just in case the misery of the character's life was not sufficiently repellent, add in the anti-morality ideas he propounds and the literature we are left with is a catastrophic failure. Inevitably, the afterlife of the character saw him adopted by anti-Semites, Nazis and the like, finishing off the self-demolition.

While Nietzsche, the novelist of his own story, bombed, this book is wonderful. By tracing consistent themes through all of Nietzsche's life and work Mr. Nehamas makes the philosopher comprehensible in a way that had previously been elusive. Indeed, we'd recommend reading this book instead of Nietzsche's own work.

Two final thoughts: (1) we might say that the real tragedy of Nietzsche was that he was not born in America or Britain, where the fact that Socrates was wrong about Reason was barely a speed bump, easily surmounted by Anglospheric philosophy, which simply reverted to our Christian aesthetic as the only basis of morality and the good life; (2) Russ Roberts recently discussed philosophy with Agnes Caillard and it's astonishing how many of the issues we just talked about here came up in their podcast.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Alexander Nehamas (2 books reviewed)
Alexander Nehamas Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Alexander Nehamas
    -FACULTY PAGE: Alexander Nehamas (Princeton University)
    -ENTRY: Nehamas, Alexander 1946- (
    -MEMBER PAGE: Alexander Nehamas, Academy member (Academy of Athens)
    -ETEXT: Nietzsche: Life as Literature (PDF)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: Nietzsche: Life as Literature
    -BOOK PAGE: Nietzsche: Life as Literature by Alexander Nehamas (Harvard University Press)
    -LECTURE: "Because it was he, because it was I": Friendship and Its Place in Life (Alexander Nehamas, 2008, University of Edinburgh, Gifford Lectures)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: Provost's Lecture Series: Metaphors in Our Lives: "I Love You for Yourself" (Alexander Nehamas, April 20, 2018, Stony Brook University)
    -ESSAY: Nietzsche and “Hitler” (Alexander Nehamas, Southern Journal of Philosophy)
    -ESSAY: Plato’s Pop Culture Problem, and Ours (ALEXANDER NEHAMAS, 8/29/10, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: The Peacock Problem: What does evolution say about why we make art? (Alexander Nehamas, March 01, 2009, American Scholar)
    -ESSAY: Nietzsche, modernity, aestheticism (Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche as philosopher, Cambridge University Press)
    -ESSAY: The Genealogy of Genealogy: Interpretation in Nietzsche’s Second: Untimely Meditation and in The Genealogy of Morals (Alexander Nehamas, On Literary Theory and Philosophy)
    -LETTER TO THE EDITOR: No Sage (Alexander Nehamas, reply by J.M. Cameron, FEBRUARY 19, 1981, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: The Postulated Author: Critical Monism as a Regulative Ideal (Alexander Nehamas, Critical Inquiry)
    -ESSAY: Nietzsche, intention, action (Alexander Nehamas, 26 January 2018, European Journal of Philosophy)
    -ESSAY: Did Nietzsche hold a “Falsification Thesis”? (Alexander Nehamas, Winter 2015, Philosophical Inquiry)
    -REVIEW: of Pippin, Robert B., Nietzsche, Psychology, and First Philosophy (Alexander Nehamas, Common Knowledge)
    -REVIEW: of Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch by John Bayley (Alexander Nehamas, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Dinner with Persephone by Patricia Storace (Alexander Nehamas, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Closing of the American Mind: How higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students by Allan Bloom. (Alexander Nehamas, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Not Rocket Science (Alexander Nehamas, 22 June 2000, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Untheory (Alexander Nehamas, 22 May 1986, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century by Sarah Abrevaya Stein (Alexander Nehamas, Jewish Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Episteme and Logos in Plato's Later Thought (Alexander Nehamas, Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy)
    -ESSAY: What an Author Is (Alexander Nehamas, November 1986, The Journal of Philosophy)
    -REVIEW: of Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag (Alexander Nehamas, American Prospect)
    -ESSAY: The Two Faces of Friendship (Alexander Nehamas, May 2, 2016 , Medium)
    -PODCAST: Alexander Nehamas explores the value of friendship (Nigel Warburton, Philosophy Bites)
    -PODCAST: Alexander Nehamas extended interview (Philosophy Talk)
    -PODCAST: Alexander Nehamas the Golden Age of Television (Philosophy Talk)
    -INTERVIEW: How We Might Repeat the Unrepeatable: Talking to Alexander Nehamas (Andy Fitch, 08/03/2018, LA Review of Books)
    -INTERVIEW: What I think: Alexander Nehamas (Jamie Saxon, Dec. 7, 2015, Princeton University)
Nietzsche was thought to have a very bad life because he was completely ignored, he was very sick most of his life, he had continuous migraines, he never found a woman he could marry, he was in love with a woman but she wasn’t interested in him, he had very few friends and had not very much money. So people say, his work is great but his life is terrible. We define the life as everything but the work — and I think that’s a really terrible mistake. But if you include in the life writing all these magnificent books and having all those incredible ideas, is that a bad life? I think that in a way is what happiness may be. Feeling “that’s me” in your work, I think that’s one of the greatest feelings you can have — ever.

    -INTERVIEW: Alexander Nehamas (David Carrier, Fall 1998, Bomb)
    -INTERVIEW: Alexander Nehamas On Emotions (Off Center, Vol 3, No 3, May 15, 2017)
    -INTERVIEW: Why Friendship Is Like Art: A new philosophy of a complicated relationship (JULIE BECK, MAY 4, 2016, The Atlantic)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: President's Lecture Series 2009-10 (Alexander Nehamas, May 7, 2010, University of Montana)
    -INTERVIEW: Care of the self: An Interview with Alexander Nehamas (Vladislav Suvak)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Why We Need To Build Strong Friendships (Joy Cardin Show, 8/18/16, Wisconsin Public Radio)
    -INTERVIEW: Q&A with Alexander Nehamas (Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb, May 3, 2016)
    -ESSAY: Self and Style: Life as Literature Revisited (Christopher Janaway,?The Journal of Nietzsche Studies)
    -ESSAY: Self-Interpreting Selves: Comments on Alexander Nehamas's Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Robert Pippin,?The Journal of Nietzsche Studies)
    -ESSAY: Nietzsche and Aestheticism (Brian Leiter, 1992, Chicago Unbound) -INTERVIEW: What Thomas Kuhn Really Thought about Scientific "Truth" (John Horgan, May 23, 2012, Scientific American)
    -ESSAY: Philosophy as Self-Fashioning: Alexander Nehamas's Art of Living (R. Lanier Anderson, Joshua Landy, Diacritics)
-ARCHIVES: Alexander Nehamas (London Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES: Alexander Nehamas (You Tube)
    -ARCHIVES: Alexander Nehamas (Academia)
    -REVIEW: of Nietzsche: Life as Literature by Alexander Nehamas (Tom Edward Heeney, Philosophy & Rhetoric)
    -REVIEW: of Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Karsten Harries, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Kathleen Marie Higgins, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism)
    -REVIEW: of Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Peter Fenves, Philosophy & Literature)
    -REVIEW: of Nietzsche: Life as Literature (David Hoy, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Philip Williams, Journal of Religion)
    -REVIEW: of Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Daniel Breazeale, Journal of the History of Philosophy)
    -REVIEW: of Nietzsche: Life as Literature (David Godden, Kinesis)
    -REVIEW: of Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Phillip Williams, Journal of Religion)
    -REVIEW: of Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art by Alexander Nehamas (GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS, NY Sun)
    -REVIEW: of Only a Promise of Happiness (Martin Donougho, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews)
    -REVIEW: of Only a Promise of Happiness (JILL MARSDEN, Nietzsche Circle)
    -REVIEW: of Only a Promise of Happiness (Carolyn Korsmeyer, The British Journal of Aesthetics)
    -REVIEW: of Only a Promise of Happiness (Christopher Benfey, Slate)
    -REVIEW: of Writings from the Early Notebooks by Friedrich Nietzsche, Raymond Geuss and Alexander Nehamas (eds.), Ladislaus Löb (tr.) (Rolf-Peter Horstmann, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews)
    -REVIEW: of On Friendship by Alexander Nehamas,/a> (Neera K. Badhwar, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews)
-REVIEW: of The Art of Living by Alexander Nehamas (Richard Bernstein, Bryn Mawr Review of Comparative Literature)
    -REVIEW: of The Art of Living (James Hans, Philosophy Today)
    -REVIEW: of The Art of Living (Phil Archive)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Friedrich Nietzsche
    -WIKIPEDIA: Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche
    -ENTRY: Friedrich Nietzsche (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    -ENTRY: Perspectivism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    -ENTRY: Lecture 27: The Revolt Against the Western Intellectual Tradition: Friedrich Nietzsche and the Birth of Modernism (The History Guide)
    -ESSAY: Nietzsche's Rereading of Plato (Catherine Zuckert, Political Theory)
    -ESSAY: Philosophizing against Philosophy: Nietzsche’s provocation of the philosophical tradition (Volker Gerhardt, Journal of Nietsche Studies)
    -DOCTORAL DISSERTATION: Nietzsche as Critic and Captive of Enlightenment Doctoral Dissertation (Lewis Call, 1995, University of California, Irvine)
    -ESSAY: The legacy of Friedrich Nietzsche: On the world Nietzsche predicted and precipitated. (Roger Kimball, september 1991, New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: Truth as Value: Nietzsche’s Escape from Nihilism (Gerry Stahl, Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
    -ESSAY: Nietzsche’s Moral Immoralism (Gregory Kimbrell, Chrestomathy)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Nietzsche vs. Nietzsche (James Joll, FEBRUARY 11, 1993 , NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Nietzsche’s Immoralism (Philippa Foot, JUNE 13, 1991, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Nietzsche's Eternal Return (Alex Ross, The New Yorker)
-INTERVIEW: A Good Life: Friendship Ar t and Truth (Interview Coordinator: Despina Vertzagia, Interviewers: Triseugene Georgakopoulou, Jenny Pavlidou, Katerina Plevridi, Fotis Stamos, 2017, Conatus)
    -ESSAY: PLATO’S POP CULTURE PROBLEM, AND OURS (Alexander Nehamas, Winter 2010-11, NCAC Newsletter)
    -ESSAY: Plato and the Mass Media (Alexander Nehamas, Plato on Art and Beauty)
    -REVIEW: of I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux (Henrik Bering, New Criterion)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: Destruction of Western Civilization – Nihilism, Nietzsche, and the Anti-Christian Crisis (Wen Wryte, June 28, 2020 by Orthodoxy Today)
    -ESSAY: On Left and Right Nietzscheanism (Matt McManus, 8/19/20, aero)