Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist by Walter Kaufmann

Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche is the book that got Anglo-American philosophers to take Nietzsche seriously after World War II. It was originally published in 1950 and has been selling ever since. Some observers think Kaufmann may have been a bit too easy on Nietzsche, but there is no doubt that Kaufmann’s book is a classic and Nietzsche was a great philosopher whose works justify serious consideration.

Nietzsche viewed the “will to power” as humanity’s basic motivating force, but didn’t worship violence. Despite what’s commonly believed, Nietzsche wasn’t a proto-Nazi or an anti-Semite. Neither was he a political liberal. It’s best to view him as a kind of aristocrat, in the way that Aristotle was an aristocrat when he wrote n favor of the “great-souled man” (“a person is thought to be great-souled if he claims much and deserves much”).

According to Nietzsche, there is a natural aristocracy of individuals who can control their passions and channel their will to power into the accomplishment of great things. In Nietzsche’s view, Caesar and Napoleon were natural aristocrats, but so were Socrates, Jesus, Michaelangelo, Spinoza, Goethe and Wagner:

Quite generally, Nietzsche distinguishes between (a) men whom he admires, (b) the ideas for which they stand, and (c) their followers. Only in terms of some such categories can one understand Nietzsche’s complex attitude toward Jesus, Christianity and Christendom [i.e. he admired the first, criticized the second and hated the third.]

Similarly, Nietzsche admired Schopenhauer; respected but criticized Schopenhauer’s philosophy; and despised his followers. Nietzsche admired Wagner and felt drawn to much of his music, but he abominated the ostentatiously Christian nationalists and anti-Semites who congregated in Bayreuth…

Nietzsche’s fight against Socrates thus takes two forms: denunciations of his epigoni [his disciples] and respectful criticisms of his doctrines… [Socrates] is the very embodiment of Nietzsche’s highest ideal: the passionate man who can control his passions [398-399].

By all accounts, Nietzsche was a kind and considerate person despite his critical nature. He even argued that the strong should be considerate of the weak (the bulk of humanity). I’d recommend Kaufmann’s book as a helpful and enjoyable account of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but Kaufmann spends a lot of time responding to old, misleading descriptions of Nietzsche’s positions. That made sense 60 years ago, but it makes Nietzsche (the book, not the philosopher), feel somewhat dated now.

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