Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist
By Peter Berkowitz Harvard University Press. 313 pp. $35
A consensus about the meaning of Nietzsche’s philosophy continues to elude us. One might have thought, for example, that a man who praises cruelty, denounces pity, and entertains the idea of mass exterminations bears some responsibility for the triumphs of fascism after his death in 1900. Yet the grossly oversimplified idea of Nietzsche as Nazi soon brought on the titanic and successful efforts of Walter Kaufmann to portray him as a liberal with an excessive polemical zest. When I first began teaching Nietzsche, his strident bluster about male superiority quite rightly offended my sensitive female students, but of late feminism has transformed all too many women from his intelligent enemies into his stupid friends. The former darling of the right has become the present darling of the left because of his matchless knack for exposing the foibles of the bourgeoisie. Recently, postmodernists of various stripes have held sway, persuading many that Nietzsche had no positive teaching at all and certainly exposed all moral evaluations as untenable. Their Nietzsche has no truths to convey because there are none; there are merely slippery “takes” on an unknowable reality: perspectivity is all.
In a valiant attempt to halt this dreary march of nonsense, Peter Berkowitz takes the field with a bold and intriguing new reading. Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist is at its best when it challenges those dogmatic pieties of postmodernists that threaten to contaminate serious inquiry. Postmodernism has its roots in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, whom Berkowitz correctly characterizes as both a great reader and misreader of Nietzsche. Heidegger’s successors seem to have inherited only the misreading. Perspectivism even at its best narrows what one can learn from Nietzsche by concentrating on epistemological conundrums rather than on Nietzsche’s subtle insight into the whole breadth of human life. At its worst it is simply incoherent, with its advocates dogmatically pronouncing the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth.
Today’s fashionable writers on Nietzsche have also exempted themselves from the imperatives of “philosophical cleanliness” so dear to Nietzsche’s heart. Convinced that all interpretation is arbitrary, they arbitrarily tear snippets of Nietzsche from their context and use them as inkblots in a Rorschach test. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s love of writing aphorisms encourages this practice, as does Heidegger’s forceful but also willful reading of texts: today’s critics of Nietzsche tend to be Heideggerians without Heidegger’s genius.
By contrast, Peter Berkowitz is able to say something new about Nietzsche because he resorts to older ways of reading. He usually respects Nietzsche’s intentions and he carefully considers a whole series of Nietzsche’s books as wholes, concentrating on Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil, but picking out other crucial works, from the earliest Birth of Tragedy to the very late Antichrist.
The interpretation that emerges from Berkowitz’s sensible and sensitive reading always commands respect and usually elicits agreement. As the subtitles suggest, he concentrates on Nietzsche’s “reflections on the best life” and he articulates “the ethics of an immoralist.” Nietzsche teaches us that the highest life is the life of human creativity, and that human excellence can be understood and communicated objectively.
Nietzsche’s overwhelming concern with the best way to live puts him very much into the mainstream of the history of philosophy (notwithstanding his indisputable modernity) and even of the history of political philosophy (notwithstanding his contempt for, and denigration of, political life in the interest of the solitary creative individual). Berkowitz’s Nietzsche believes in “right making based on right knowing”; his thought is strongly anchored in metaphysics and he is thus more than a bit of a Platonist. To be sure, he is also something more, or at least something else. One finds in Nietzsche’s thought “the distinctive clash between ancient and modern.” The latter element can be seen above all in his emphasis on an unbridled will that masters even necessity. Nietzsche seriously plays with the idea of self-deification: after the death of God, men must become gods. An abiding tension, an “unresolved antagonism,” runs through Nietzsche’s thinking. Because there can be no final overcoming of overcoming, according to Berkowitz, “Nietzsche’s teaching, at the climactic moment, shatters.” Yet the intellectual conscience that drove Nietzsche to his chilling thought experiment is worthy of our emulation. We must come to terms with the “formidable challenge of his philosophical explorations.” Berkowitz provides us with an admiring portrait of Nietzsche’s thought without ever succumbing to the temptation of becoming a Nietzschean.
Unfortunately, I am compelled to add that the author is not uniformly persuasive and not always successful in his endeavors. Berkowitz commendably enough sets out to characterize Nietzsche’s thought as full of tantalizing ambiguities, intriguing ambivalences, as an “unresolved contest of extremes.” But in his zealous attempt to defend Nietzsche—at times even when he is not being attacked-he yields to the temptation of resolving that tension and viewing Nietzsche as a direct descendant of Socrates. There is indeed much to be said for reclaiming Nietzsche for the great tradition of Western thought, but Berkowitz tends to overdo it.
It is surely the case, to cite one example, that Nietzsche has been too simplistically charged with being a Fascist, but Berkowitz’s repetitive emphasis on the antipolitical aspect of Nietzsche’s thinking goes too far. Berkowitz admits that Nietzsche despised democratic politics but argues that Nietzsche despised all politics. And yet, isn’t that because Nietzsche thought all politics, and modern politics especially, to be too democratic? Berkowitz is certainly aware of the late Nietzsche’s emphasis on the “great politics” of the future, but he confines his discussion and dismissal of this frightening concept to a single page.
This tendency—to play up one extreme of Nietzsche’s thought while playing down the other—runs throughout the book, and that is a pity because Berkowitz is almost uniquely qualified to do justice to the complexity of Nietzsche’s thought. All of his analyses teem with genuine insight, but all too often he mars his labors by overemphasizing one thing and neglecting something else. Thus, when writing of The Birth of Tragedy, he reveals much about Nietzsche’s aesthetics but fails to do justice to the clearly anti-Aristotelian thrust. Thus, too, when analyzing the Antichrist, Berkowitz correctly points to what one might call Nietzsche’s Enlightenment “curse on Christendom,” but he does not fully reveal its rhetorical excesses, as when Nietzsche refers to Jesus Christ as an “idiot.”
One wants to overlook such one-sidedness, for it seems to be driven by the commendable urge to slay the pernicious dragon of perspectivism, but after a while one feels the perspectivists ought to have been allowed to hang themselves. After all, there are perspectival elements in Nietzsche’s thought, as Peter Berkowitz knows and admits.
The favorite text for perspectivists is Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a weird and wild book that some of us non-perspectivists think of as also wonderful. Since it comes across as, in part, a massive assault on reason and rationality, it is grist for the mill of relativists and nihilists of all persuasions. It is an articulation of Zarathustra’s way, but Zarathustra also claims that the way does not exist. It is a book with which Berkowitz is compelled to wrestle, and wrestle he does, in more than a hundred densely argued pages, that could and should have been the high point of his analysis. They are not.
Part of the trouble lies in Berkowitz’s tone. One finds in these chapters a perplexing hostility to Zarathustra himself, who is after all only a character in the book. Berkowitz relentlessly exaggerates the amount of poisonous resentment in Zarathustra, skirts inaccuracy by describing him as “comatose” in Book III, and claims that in Book IV Zarathustra is “prematurely gray” (though no one knows how old he is). Worst of all, he turns a resolutely deaf ear to Zarathustra’s beautiful utterances. Though aware of Nietzsche’s stylistic splendors, Berkowitz mocks Zarathustra’s frequent bombast, but does not praise beautiful phrases like “arrows of longing for the other shore” or the sweeping rhythms of the “Night Song.”
Even if one overlooks the author’s reluctance fully to acknowledge the aid and comfort provided to postmodernists by Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Will to Power, one must be disappointed by Berkowitz’s failure to deal adequately with the doctrine of the Eternal Return of the Same, both in itself and in its problematic relation to the doctrine of the Will to Power. The analysis begins with the flippant remark that “the Eternal Return is fundamental to Zarathustra much as the San Andreas Fault is a basic part of the California Coastal region” and goes on to write of Zarathustra’s “humiliating surrender to the lust for eternity.” Berkowitz never discusses the possibility that Zarathustra’s love of eternity might be the love of time itself rather than of anything that transcends time; he has little to say about the Eternal Return as a cosmological doctrine, and the analysis of the speeches devoted to this most difficult doctrine strike one as more interested in scoring points than shedding light. It is not very helpful to think of Part IV of Thus Spoke Zarathustra as a “retreat” from the doctrine of the Eternal Return of the Same; that retreat owes much more to the author’s ingenuity and imagination than anything Nietzsche actually wrote. The same must be said of Berkowitz’s attempt to characterize the book as a whole as a failed “thought experiment.” Commendably dedicated to trying to understand Nietzsche as he understood himself, Berkowitz sometimes comes close to claiming to understand Nietzsche better than he understood himself.
One must hasten to add, however, that Peter Berkowitz’s analysis of Beyond Good and Evil far exceeds his exegesis of Zarathustra. He obviously thinks that Beyond Good and Evil is more beautiful (a preference he shares with that most excellent of commentators on Nietzsche, Leo Strauss). Berkowitz should have paid more attention to the final aphorism and to Nietzsche’s tantalizing description of “the great stupidity we are,” but on the whole he provides us with a model of productive commentary.
The same can be said of much of the book. Peter Berkowitz sometimes disappoints us, but that may be because his work demands to be judged by the highest standards. The book he has written needs some fixing, but it surely isn’t broken. In Berkowitz’s hands, Nietzsche undergoes a somewhat excessive domestication, but that is what may be needed just now.
Werner J. Dannhauser is Visiting Professor of Political Science at Michigan State University.