Nietzsche, the Closet Optimist ; the Troubled Philosopher Had So Much Faith in 'Self-Fashioning'

Article excerpt

Nietzsche once wrote: "I know my fate.... I am no man, I am dynamite." The son of a Lutheran pastor, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844- 1900) identified with the anti-Christ. A firm believer in science, he spent his last decade a madman, in all likelihood the victim of syphilis. An even greater paradox: Though an ardent anti-anti- Semite and a fierce critic of German nationalism, he became a hero to the Third Reich.

The best way to know Nietzsche is to read him not as a philosopher - as one would read Locke or Kant - but as a writer. Or, read him as you would listen to good music. Be patient, listen hard and often. As Rudiger Safranski makes clear in his new biography, for Nietzsche, music was "authentic reality."

In "Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography," translated by Shelley Frisch, Safranski allows us to read Nietzsche over his shoulder. He provides an ideal companion for understanding the man.

Nietzsche's life was full of highs and lows, and so vulnerable to sensationalism. Safranski puts those highs and lows into the context of the philosopher's thinking. Indeed, Nietzsche came to link physical suffering with mental triumph. Even before he left his teaching post, regular bouts of illness and pain caused him to fear he would die, like his father, of brain disease.

It was then, a full decade before his final troubles, that Nietzsche developed his mature aphoristic style, one of the wonders of German language. And yet Nietzsche's style is not so radical a departure from tradition. Safranski notes the irony that this great enemy of traditional morality speaks as a moralist:

"You should become master of yourself and also master of your own virtues. Previously, they were your masters, but they must be nothing more than your tools, just some tools among others. …