We had a week beside the sea, last week. Nothing quite like the North Sea in October! Blustery Norfolk skies and coastal walks are the perfect combo.

Another bonus was the chance to catch up with some serious reading. The highlight for me was Sue Prideaux’s astonishing 2018 biography of Friederich Nietzsche, I am Dynamite! 

Now those who felt I waggled on the tee too long in the previous 3 posts of this series will really think I’ve lost the plot by including this one. It will seem a complete red herring and actually unhelpful. But please bear with me. In the next post, I hope to ground this a bit more in our reality.

A Gripping Read Despite A Desperate Life

I couldn’t put the book down. Yet I felt overwhelmed:

  • by compassion for a desperate man who lived such a difficult life (constant illness treated with detrimental ‘cures’, deeply frustrating dependence on others to help him read and write as his eyesight gradually failed, and in the end, 10 years of insanity while effectively incarcerated by his supremely unpleasant sister).
  • by feeling completely intimidated at such paradoxically creative and destructive brilliance. I didn’t even begin to plumb those depths. If Nietzsche is notorious for one thing today, it is the fact that he put that brilliance to such devastating use in his battle against Christianity, the faith of his Lutheran pastor father. It needs to be noted, as Prideaux warns more than once, that “his condemnations were reserved for the Church and priests rather than Jesus Christ, the founder of the religion, whom he admires and reveres.” (p310) Sounds familiar? His influence is now evident in the man and woman of the western street. Then, of course, it is impossible to ignore the even more dangerous ends to which his thought would be the means (often unjustly), after him. And he knew that risk was real:

I am frightened by the thought of what unqualified and unsuitable people may invoke my authority one day. Yes, that is the torment of every great teacher of mankind: he knows that, given the circumstances and the accidents, he can become a disaster as well as a blessing to mankind.

So for example: 

Tragically for Nietzsche, the need to overcome ourselves became so blatantly distorted into the need to overcome others that it tended to overshadow his ability to ask the eternal questions in such a gloriously provocative way. Similarly, his devotion to examining every facet of the truth and never recommending an answer beyond 'perhaps...' has afforded infinite possibilities for interpretation.

Friedrich (painted posthumously) and his very scary sister, Elisabeth, by Edvard ‘The Scream’ Munch (1906)

No wonder Prideaux is constantly attentive to distinguishing precisely what he said and meant from what others claimed. One thing is abundantly clear: Nietzsche was by no means a proto-Nazi.

Anyway. Of the book’s scores of insights (which are still percolating in the little grey cells), this particular point hit home. Nietzsche was super confident about his thinking once he reached his conclusions. He could write with masterly aggression or clarity, as context demanded; he could be infuriatingly opaque and even confusing if the whim took him. But he always did so with vigour and nerve. Yet, here’s the paradox. As already hinted, he was super-confident in his demand for profound epistemological humility. 😲😳

Now, let me unpack that!

A Confident Call for Epistemological Humility

Here he concludes his book, Daybreak (1886). My understanding (as I’ve not read that one) is that in it, he explores a deliberately non- (if not anti-) theological understanding of human nature, while simultaneously rejecting the scientific materialist’s reduction to everything being determined by our biochemistry and physics. He saw himself as a philosophical Columbus departing from Genoa into the unknown. Remember, he had no certainties at all about the outcome of his voyage…

We are aeronauts of the spirit... whither does this mighty longing draw us, this longing that is worth more to us than any pleasure? Why must in this direction, where all the suns of humanity have hitherto gone done. Will it perhaps be said of us one day that we too, steering westward hoped to reach an India--but that it was our fate to be wrecked against infinity? Or, my brothers. Or?-

Prideaux laconically comments, ‘Few authors are brave enough to end a book on ‘Or?-‘ Are there any, in fact?!

He would, of course, go on to declare, via the madman of The Gay Science, that God was dead ‘and we have killed him.’ (Prideaux, 209). The consequences would be catastrophic: “Incipit tragoedia”, he wrote. The tragedy begins. Why? Because it was impossible to preserve Christianity’s ethical content without its theology. (Prideaux, 210) As his thinking developed, he showed how we can no longer be certain about anything declared to be true, especially in ethics. It is possible to trace what he called “the genealogy of ethics”, because we can never recognise things as eternal absolutes, only ‘fleeting conventions’. (Prideaux 268). And he didn’t pull his punches, especially against philosophy and science. It wasn’t only religion in his cross-hairs.

  • Philiosophers were ‘spokesmen for their ideas which they baptise ‘truths’… Philosophy is a glorification of universalisation. It is imposition… Philosophy is a tyrannical drive, the most spiritual will to power, to the “creation of the word”, to the causa prima.’ (Prideaux, 269)
  • It is no better for science. ‘The conclusions of the microscopists provide no more truth than do the philosophers. The meaning of science is not religion. Yet science, somehow, is becoming substituted for religion. The modern world is mistaking scientific theory for moral dogma.’ (Prideaux, 269)
  • ‘Having called into question the nature of self and declared objective truth to be an impossible fiction, he mischievously goes on to point out that to assert that objective truth is a fiction to make a statement of objective truth which must itself be a fiction.’ (Prideaux, 271)
The Nietzsche Stone, near Surlej, where he experienced the inspiration for Thus Spoke Zarathustra (by Armin Kübelbeck)

So, if ‘truth’ is mere interpretation, what on earth do we do?

Distrusting all system-builders, Nietzsche steadfastly refuses to build a system for us. He loves to contradict himself in the realm of ideas, and to force us into the position of the free spirit who is independent of him.

Now, it is way above my pay grade or abilities to work through all this in order to reconstruct something workable and liveable while doing justice to Nietzsche’s thought. I’m no philosopher at all.

Consequently (perhaps?!), I do believe it’s possible to hold to Truth as a reality, or more accurately, to find ways of getting closer to it, without claiming an objective let alone complete grasp of it. So Nietzsche is not completely right. His philosophy is not enough to kill God, or even to be able to discern that he’s been killed.

But here’s the point. He is not entirely wrong, either. In fact, he is right for an unnervingly large proportion of the time; ‘unnerving’ to me, at least, because we try to cling to what seem primarily pre-modern truth claims, while inhabiting a largely/too modernist framework, despite accepting the validity of many post-modernist objections to it. No wonder it’s such a deeply unsettling and destabilising position to find oneself occupying. (Those with pastoral hearts for those in their contexts who wrestle with this stuff should therefore take note.)

The implications of all this are, to put it mildly, significant. But more of that anon…

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