Nietzsche Answers: Commentary

This page provides a commentary on the excerpt from Nietzsche.


There is much to be discussed in this short passage; the first paragraph alone could keep a course lecturer busy for several weeks. The passage and paragraph open by telling the tale of a traveller who observed that a common trait of people the world over is laziness. Another writer might have expressed this as his own opinion, but it serves Nietzsche’s purpose here, as elsewhere, to put forward the idea as if it is not his own. This serves two rhetorical functions. First, it obviates the need for Nietzsche to have to defend the opinion given, as one should have to if asserting it as one’s own; he gives the impression of merely reporting it for consideration. Second, it allows him to use that assertion – as if now it has been transformed into an argument from some credible authority – as a support for the ideas that he does put forward explicitly as his own. To see this, consider what follows the tale of the traveller: Nietzsche asserts that everybody knows they have only one life, but they hide from this truth. What could account for this? Why, nothing other than the aforementioned observation that people are lazy. Consider how less effective these two ideas would have been had Nietzsche stated both merely as his own opinions. Logically, he would have had to defend both, and the pair would have lacked the semblance of argumentative form that he achieves here, of appearing to make a claim and provide an independent supporting premise. A good critical thinker will notice tricks such as this, in part by recognising that there is no citation for the premise: who is this traveller? what is the source of the quote? what authority or evidence does he have that this is, in fact, the most widespread trait of human beings? The usual credentials necessary for academic argument are missing, then, but nor are they expected by the reader precisely because Nietzsche’s style is literary rather than academic. This does nothing to lessen the persuasive force of the argument on the casual reader; on the contrary, as orators and speech-writers have long known, audiences are guiled far more easily with entertaining style than precise logic. All the more reason, then, for the would-be philosopher to be critical when approaching this kind of work.

Forewarned and forearmed, the reader may now start to spot other flaws in Nietzsche’s easy style. The reason that people follow the herd is because they are lazy, he maintains; it is easier to go along with the crowd than strike out on your own. However, there appears to be a contradiction here, for Nietszche goes on to say that this laziness is borne from fear of the trouble being individualistic might cause. Hence, it appears that the principle trait is not laziness at all, then, but rather fear. Not daring to be different from the crowd because of the consequences such individualism could bring is quite a different matter from not being bothered to be different due to inertia or idleness. The proof of this lies in the fact that it would be perfectly consistent with Nietzsche’s point to claim one has the energy but not the courage to be different.

Being oneself, thinking for yourself, and not following the herd is, for Nietzsche, a moral requirement. Quietism is the worst kind of moral lassitude. The point of the first paragraph is not to say ‘if one wants to be different, dare to follow your conscience’; rather, it is an exhortation. Again, the usual academic signals for moral imperatives are missing here, but it seems clear from Nietzsche’s style that he is not interested in providing mere advice; he is trying to stir the reader into action.

In the second and third paragraphs, Nietzsche moves from the general to the specific. Compare Kant, that popular, herd-encouraging, mechanical thinker, with Schopenhauer, the isolated philosopher shunning friendship and resisting tyranny in pursuit of truth for himself and, by extension as we later read in paragraphs 5 and 6, truth for all humankind.

It is interesting that after complaining about Kant’s herd-inspiring philosophy, and implying that his contemporaries are engaged in little more than academic exercises rather than ‘penetrating their hearts’ to the ‘holiest of depths’, Nietzsche admits that a Schopenhauer is necessary in order to provide an answer to the scepticism that ensues from the Kantian philosophy. Paragraphs 4 and 5 lay out this dilemma and seek to solve it: the difference between Kant and Schopenhauer’s philosophy is a difference in vision. The Kantian philosophy only sees the parts, dissecting each with no knowledge or comprehension of how they relate to the whole. This is what generates the appearance of scepticism. Schopenhauer on the other hand, treats life holistically and inclusively. He tries to interpret the whole of life, to see its overall function and purpose and the problems that arise within it. Kant, who models himself after the scientists, tries to understand only the mechanism.

We can start to understand the distinction Nietzsche is trying to make by considering the following. Imagine a scientist who says colours don’t exist. He says, rather, that what we perceive as colour is merely reflected electromagnetic energy traveling at a certain frequency and having a given wavelength. The analytic view says that this explanation makes redundant the concept of colour. In contrast, the holistic account says this scientific story is part of the explanation of what colour is (the rest, we might assume, contains something about sense organs and the neurophysicology of brains that render various wavelengths into perceptual experiences). Whatismore, the scientific account only makes sense against the background of the holistic account. In other words, it was only because we started investigating a phenomenon – the perceptual experience of colour – that we developed the scientific account. It is the phenomenon that has fundamental existential validity, not the explanation. If one allows the explanation to replace the phenomenon, one cannot be ‘freed from error’, no matter how ingenious the theory might be.

To return to Nietzsche and Schopenhauer then, the idea is that Schopenhauer’s account preserves the intellecutal honesty and integrity of the original purpose of philosophy – to learn the meaning of life, both universally and individually. Philosophers who merely engage in the scholastic exercises of dialectical argument – arguing the pros and cons of various competing theories – allow themselves to be distracted from the very phenomenon that originated their inquiry.

In the final paragraph, Nietzsche leaves us with an existential question to ponder – the meaning of life must have a higher aim than personal glory. From an atheistic stance, it appears to both Nietzsche and Schopenhauer that the only aim can be to improve oneself, and in thereby doing improving nature (it doesn’t appear to be part of either of their conceptions – both single men, of course – that a higher aim might be working for one’s family). Resignation ensues, for how much can nature really be improved upon – we might also add – and what significance would such an improvement have in any case?

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