Nietzsche's health problems began well before his university years, and he had been forced to take periods of rest and recuperation even as a teenager. At Basel, the regular pattern of the academic calendar added stress that Nietzsche responded to with physical collapse. He had already taken a leave-of-absence for health reasons while working on The Birth of Tragedy. In 1876, by the opening of Bayreuth, he was in such bad health that he applied for and was granted a full year's leave-of-absence. He had it in his mind that he would travel in Italy; but he was also preparing himself for what was to become his habitual work pattern of life in small, inexpensive rented rooms, in Italy and in the Swiss Alps.
Nietzsche had already conceived of his next project, a substantial book called Human, All-Too-Human and dubbed "a book for free spirits." In early 1878, he had 1000 copies printed but only 120 of these had been sold during the first year. The book went pretty much unrecognized. While the Wagners received gift copies, they had been demoted to 24th on the list of recipients.
In the following year, 1879, Nietzsche completed a new work called Assorted Opinions and Maxims. Also this year, after ten years of teaching, Nietzsche resigned his position at the University of Basle and accepted a small pension on which he would survive for the remainder of his life. He had given up his Prussian citizenship to go to Basle; he now gave up the title of professor. Who was he? His health had become the overarching issue; and he now regularized his "annual round," calculated strategically in order to give himself the largest number of good working days. He summered in the Swiss Alps and wintered along the coast in Italy. He traveled to Basel to see old friends and to Naumburg to see family. Mostly his contacts with friends was by correspondence.
In 1880, he completed another short work, The Wanderer and His Shadow. [When he edited and republished many of his books, with new materials, in 1886, he combined Assorted Opinions and Maxims and The Wanderer and His Shadow with Human, All-Too-Human as Parts 1 and 2 of H, A-T-H Volume II.] And finally, in January 1881, he sent off a new book, initially called "The Ploughshare," but renamed by his friend and copyist, Peter Gast, Daybreak with the motto "Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality."
The period from 1876 to 1881 was a dark period in Nietzsche's life, and these are dark books, exploring the psychological depths of human beings and the institutions in which they imprison themselves. Nietzsche's break from Wagner was complete, but this left him largely estranged from all of his previous associations. Just a small group of old school friends and associates at the University of Basle remained faithful to him. One should remember, in fact, the boldness with which Nietzsche had distanced himself from his past and from professional philologists while under the spell of Wagnerism. It was a period of intellectual and psychological development and re-building, trying to define his own path. Meanwhile, Nietzsche's health continued to decline. He was plagued with failing eyesight, massive headaches, and sieges of diarrhea. His dresser top looked like a pharmacist's shelf; and he struggled to control his life by regimenting an optimal pattern of daily rituals.
All of this had significant effects on Nietzsche's work. Already in Human, All-To-Human Nietzsche had broken from the normal expository prose forms of his previous works. Nietzsche was now working by recording brief essays or mere passages in notebooks. A book represents simply a theme of interest; and these notes come to be arranged, and rearranged, as developments of themes, with counter-themes. Daybreak is a typical product; it has five "books" each of which is divided into many numbered and separately named aphorisms. From this point onward, none of Nietzsche's works develop in a single logical line of exposition. Everything is multifaceted.
The Gay Science was the product of all that dark questioning of '76-'81; but by the time it emerged in 1882, Nietzsche's spirit had lifted. This book is light, fresh, alive, even joyful. It is far beyond Nietzsche's previous books. Note, for instance, the very end to Book One, "Pardon me, my friends, I have ventured to paint my happiness on the wall."
The book's German title, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, means something like "joyful science;" but Nietzsche, who had now found a recuperative haven in Italy, also gave it an Italian subtitle that could not be mistaken, "la gaya scienza." While some commentators have mistakenly identified this as Nietzsche's "positivistic" period, imagining that he took "science" as literally as 19th Century Positivists, we should resist understanding "science" in this way. What Nietzsche understood was something more like hard, honest, truth-seeking that requires the work of imagination and that is joyful in what it harvests. E.g., note "A thinker sees his own actions as experiments and questions . . . Success and failure are for him answers above all." (#41) and "I favor any skepsis to which I may reply: 'Let us try it!' But I no longer wish to hear anything of all those things and questions that do not permit any experiment." (#51)
Nietzsche has far outgrown the philosophy of Schopenhauer, in this work, and has also slipped well beyond using Classical Greece as his point of departure. The issue before him is the character of human beings; and his starting place is anthropology and psychology. The book constitutes the first strong statement of the principles on which most of his later work will be based.
In this class, we will not read Book V. The edition of 1882 did not include the Preface or Book V; these were added when Nietzsche created the second edition in 1887. While Book V clearly contains important material that completes Nietzsche's thinking from the point of view of his later development, Books I - IV give the best direct testimony to his state of mind in 1882 and move directly into his next work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Book I The first four aphorisms in this book are of great importance in establishing the methodological features of the whole work. In #1 Nietzsche straightforwardly adopts the anthropological point of view. We have to know humans from the very roots, from the most basic instincts, from the herd animal. In #2 he points out how we lie to ourselves, that humans have evolved as a special kind of animal that needs to know why it exists, and that this has led to a series of false constructions. What Nietzsche demands is an intellectual conscience, honest truth seeking. In #3 he introduces a number of dichotomies that will rule in much that he has to say from here on --- higher and lower, noble and common, individual and herd. And finally, in #4 he sets forth the idea that it is to daring that we owe newness and regeneration. But the inherent conservatism of human societies always views newness as evil and the daring person as an evil nature.
From here on the book seems to wander through a variety of topics; few aphorisms develop directly from one another. However, the complex of ideas is uniformly introductory to Nietzsche's point of view and his methods of analysis. #7, for instance, asks for a history of morality and asks that this be done on scientific grounds, distinguishing truth seeking from ideology. In #11 he elaborates on our state of consciousness and how much of it is vested in bad faith and errors. The two theses are connected in Nietzsche's mind and will become the basis for his Genealogy of Morals; most of what we view as morality has been eroneously rationalized over long periods of development. Variations on this theme are expanded in #29 and again in #44. In #21, in fact, he shows this in a surprising attack upon virtue. "The praise of virtue is the praise of something that is privately harmful --- the praise of instincts that deprive a human being of his noblest selfishness and the strength for the highest autonomy." In effect, virtue is how society protects itself at the expense of the individual.
In #13 Nietzsche explores a view of power and the powerful which will become significant in all his writing. As he sees it, the powerful show respect and admiration for their opponents. Moral virtues derive ultimately from the society of powerful men. Weakness does not generate value; it is the weak who invent systems of pity. "Pity is praised as the virtue of prostitutes."
Of considerable interest are aphorisms #40 through 42. Here Nietzsche offers some rare insights into modern industrial society. In knightly society there was value in what men sought to do; in industrial society men do what they do (work) merely to be paid. Value, in effect, has become alienated --- from inner desires and needs to outer currencies. The plight of the modern worker is humiliating.
Book I ends, as it began, with a series of more closely connected aphorisms, #53 through #56. These passages set the stage for the "gay science." The realm of goodness is posited everywhere that sight has become diminished, where the evils are no longer seen or understood. Thus, those with insight and with deep thought are destined to "gloominess and grief." Nobility of mind is hard won and rarely celebrated by people at large. "It involves the use of a rare and singular standard and almost a madness: the feeling of heat in things that feel cold to everybody else; the discovery of values for which no scales have been invented yet; offering sacrifices on altars that are dedicated to an unknown god; a courage without any desire for honors; a self-sufficiency that overflows and gives to men and things."
Book II This is a selection of aphorisms that has more continuity than some groupings. The book is a meditation on three topics --- women, art, and (for lack of a better expression) great people.
The first two aphorisms, however, continue from the previous book (in particular, #54) to set Nietzsche's methodology, and they introduce some essential ideas to which Nietzsche returns, full force, in Book III. While #57 is addressed "To the Realists," it lays a foundation for Nietzsche's belief that there is no reality as such. Furthermore, #58 suggests, to continue, that our realities are linguistic creations; that is, we reify through language. Appearances that we appropriate through naming eventually become essences and things. All of this is done in the mode of criticizing metaphysical "realists," that is, those who expect to dominate, to be taken as authorities, or to be accepted at face value because they claim to speak from the foundation of the real. But Nietzsche supposes that there is not much difference between realists and idealists, objectivists and subjectivists, except for linguistic habit. At bottom, all of these stem from origins in our passions, fantasies, and interests. This is an important leveling point. At bottom, all humans are in the same situation, making their own "worlds." No one can argue "better" based on reality because we have no organ for detecting reality. If there are better worlds (and there clearly are), the argument must be based in some other way. This is merely the opening edge of a very large problem. How do we determine which worlds are better? It is a fundamentally moral problem.
Aphorisms #59 through #75 all address women, or men and women, in some way. All are essentially "psychological" inquiries. Nietzsche's relations with women were problematic, to say the least, having grown up with no male presence in his life and a dominating grandmother, aunts, mother, and sister. As an adult, Nietzsche has been closest to his sister, Elizabeth, but his views are also strongly determined by his mother (especially his idea of "action at a distance" aphorism #60). At this point in his life, the only other woman that he has known well (with emotional attachment) was Cosima Wagner whom he witnessed in a passionate relation to a man from an Oedipal perspective. It is no surprise, then, that #59 sets off on a decidedly negative path. Nevertheless, in #68, Nietzsche seems to arrive at a deep and constructive truth --- "It is men that corrupt women!" The aphorism almost seems to anticipate the feminist deconstruction of gender. That is, we need to look critically at how both men and women have fashioned their visions of the other and how these visions determine the ways in which the others behave, the weaknesses they affect, the limitations they suffer. Equally well, #71 seems to anticipate Freud and Breuer's work on hysteria in the 1880s and 1890s. European women are brought up "as ignorant as possible of erotic matters" but are then traumatically thrown into carnal knowledge within a male-dominated marriage institution. All in all, in spite of some hard edges, there is much truth in Nietzsche's observations.
Aphorism #76 returns to the undercurrent discussion of reality and rationality. It is also a striking contemplation of madness, especially ironic, given Nietzsche's final demise. Madness is pictured as a "rest position," finally giving in to an ever-present tendency to simply find joy in unreason. To relax the tension of maintaining "rationality." Needless to say, society could not survive if we all gave in to this tendency. Yet "there actually are things to be said in favor of the exception." Throughout time, madness has always been regarded as conveying divine wisdom. As Kaufmann notes in his footnote, it is important to keep all sides of this discussion in view.
From #77 until #98, Nietzsche pursues the topic of art. Of special significance are #80, #84, and #85. In effect, art is seen as the intentional development of a contradiction of nature. Reality, in fact, must be contradicted for humans to survive. We have art so that we will not die of the truth.
From #99 until the end of this book, he considers the lives and impact of great men, including artists. The long discussion of Schopenhauer (#99) is especially important in showing how Nietzsche's thinking has developed, especially the final quotation from his own essay --- ". . . everyone who wishes to become free must become free through his own endeavor, and that freedom does not fall into any man's lap as a miraculous gift." Equally well, his observations on Wagner's use of Schopenhauer demonstrates Nietzsche's growth away from Wagner as well.
The final aphorism (#107) falls in with #57, 58, and 76, by returning to the issues of truth and reality. It is a difficult aphorism to understand because Nietzsche is not saying precisely what is coming to his mind but merely setting the stage for Book III. Also, Nietzsche's use of the words 'truth' and 'untruth' is uncommon to us. Nietzsche assumes that "the truth" is commonly taken in the Apollinian way as the accuracy of a description of reality. Thus, since Nietzsche denies we have any organ with which to fix reality, he sees us as indefinitely subject to untruth. To the Apollinian scientist this is unbearable; hence, art is what makes our situation bearable because art, being "playful" with appearance, gets around its untruth. This is probably the most important aphorism of Book II and it concludes everything that he has been developing about art.
Much of this book seems to be "housekeeping." He is putting forward his current positions on these crucial topics --- symbolic of his mother/sister, Wagner, and Schopenhauer's philosophy --- all the mainstays of his past. These are his final positions, his posture toward these, before he begins the preliminary statement of his new mental life.
Book III In this book we meet perhaps the most powerful collection of continuously sustained aphorisms in all of Nietzsche's writing. It is the first powerful statement of Nietzsche's intellectual position, as it has defined itself throughout the previous two works. Three aphorisms mark the basic divisions --- #108, #125, and #153. All deal with the "death of god." The first announces that god is dead; the second announces that we have killed god; and the third takes personal responsibility (in the name of homo poeta) for creating "the tragedy of tragedies" and inquires whether a comic solution would be better than a tragic one. From #154 through #275, we find a succession of small aphorisms, all in a very different mood. #108 through #153 warrants constant rereading. If Nietzsche has a coherent philosophical position, it is here. It is radical, to say the least, and it suggests many paradoxes.
What does Nietzsche mean by proclaiming that god is dead? He begins to show us by delving deeply into metaphysics (#109) and epistemology (#110) --- what we think exists and how we think that we know anything about this. Nietzsche believes that our metaphysical tendency is toward a dangerous anthropomorphism; that is, we attribute to the universe a variety of traits that only belong to ourselves. "Let us beware of thinking that the world is a living being," he says. But also, "let us beware of saying that there are laws in nature. There are only necessities." That is, in some sense, all we should invest in our picture of the universe is the fact that it happens.
But what about our ideas and the matters about which we feel certain, our knowledge? Nietzsche suggests (continuing quite consistently in his "anthropological-evolutionary" strategy) that the most fundamental concepts we have were acquired by a form of natural selection. Evidently, these concepts had higher survival potential for those in whom they occured; they are strong. What then of our whole scheme of truth assessment? Nietzsche sees doubt, reason, and truth as "late arrivals," after-thoughts. "Thus, the strength of knowledge does not depend on its degree of truth [as we suppose] but on its age, on the degree to which it has been incorporated, on its character as a condition of life." Discourse and rationalization are born in societies that have free time --- perhaps, too much.
Nietzsche will return over and over to this basic claim about what we think we know and how we think we know it. Most of what has stuck, Nietzsche argues, stuck there because it had strength and was in the minds and wills of powerful survivors. Reflection and concept formation, rationalization and ideology, come later and are social constructs that say more about social and political relations than about realities. Nietzsche concludes #110 with a powerful statement. "A thinker is now that being in whom the impulse for truth and those life-preserving errors clash for their first fight, after the impulse for truth has proved to be also a life-preserving power. Compared to the significance of this fight, everything else is a matter of indifference: the ultimate question about the conditions of life has been posed here, and we confront the first attempt to answer this question by experiment. To what extent can truth endure incorporation? That is the question; that is the experiment." The ultimate question, in other words, is whether the system of truth seeking in human rationality is also strong within evolutionary standards. This is not a question that we can answer reflectively; it is a human experiment.
Throughout this important aphorism Nietzsche calls our basic concepts "errors;" thus, he has been criticized for inconsistently applying truth assessments. What Nietzsche means, however, is not that these concepts are all falsehoods in common truth assessment, but rather that no concept can ever being anything but "erroneous" in addressing the universe. The universe is a chaos and we have no organ through which to perceive it. Thus, we have no organ of accurate concept formation. What we know is never more than the fact that our fundamental concepts have survived thus far. It is best to construe these as errors, that is, always fundamentally inaccurate or flawed. Contemporary discussion of Nietzsche calls this his "perspectivism," and Nietzsche himself uses the term, though it is not clear that there is any agreement on what is meant. What seems clear is that Nietzsche understands every person to create a personal "world" and that socialized people struggle to bring their worlds together into a common world view, which they judge to be truth. The problem with the term "perspectivism" is that, while it entertains the subjective point of departure, it implies a common target object. Nietzsche's concept of chaos, however, probably denies us even that convenient assumption.
From #111 through #120, the ramifications of this manner of thinking are carried forward; and from #121 through #124 they are concluded. "We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we can live --- by positing bodies, lines, planes, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content; without these articles of faith nobody now could endure life. But that does not prove them. Life is no argument. The conditions of life might include error." Then, "Christianity, too, has made a great contribution to the enlightenment, and taught moral skepticism very trenchantly and effectively, accusing and embittering men, yet with untiring patience and subtlety." In other words, Christianity is simply another part of the common world view that we have worked out in our social and political relations. From here it is an easy step to the myth of the madman (#125). Not only is god dead, but we have killed god ourselves. The death of god is a product of our own thinking, of our rationalizations, our social and political relations with each other, even though it may take us a long time (still to come) before we actually see the scope and impact of our thinking.
From #126 through #152, Nietzsche follows out the implications of god's death. This is one of Nietzsche's first sustained attacks on Christianity, attempting to show how Christianity could not reasonably survive as a world view. "The Christian resolve to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad." (#129, my emphasis) "The founder of Christianity thought that there was nothing of which men suffered more than their sins. That was his error --- the error of one who felt that he was without sin and who lacked first hand experience." (#138) Later on Nietzsche observes that Christ died too early to be a mature prophet.
At #153, we have the final interlude. Here Nietzsche proclaims, in the name of "poetic man," that he himself has slain god and, thus, written the most tragic of tragedies. Having killed all gods in the fourth act, how will he end it? Perhaps a comedy! The concluding collection of brief aphorisms provides a kind of comic relief, perhaps. They are worldly observations, sometimes quite insightful -- "Those that know they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity." (#173)
Book III ends with eleven rapid-fire, one-sentence aphorisms that reveal much of Nietzsche's psychological state of mind and that refine the idea of a creative man invested in the work of Gay Science. "What we do is never understood but always only praised or censured." (#264) In other words, we are always eager to evaluate or judge and leave real understanding behind. "What are man's truths ultimately? Merely his irrefutable errors." (#265) returns to the epistemological perspectives of the book's beginning. "In what do you believe? -- In this, that the weights of all things must be determined anew." (#269) is a foreshadowing of Nietzsche's famous "revaluation of all values." "You shall become the person you are" (#270) What more could one say! And the final three all deal with the emergence from Christian "original sin" and the feeling of shame. Humans should live in joy, not shame.
Book IV The last aphorism of Book IV, #342, literally begins Nietzsche's next book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The mood of Book IV is entirely a prelude to this next work; that is, it is a succession of sage suggestions on how to live well. It says "Yes!" to life; it suggests boldly re-constructing values; and it takes the point of view that healthy life is painful and difficult, yet praiseworthy within that. Book IV is dedicated to the myth of Saint Januarius, whose blood ran warm and liquid again each year. Rhetorically, much of this book assumes the voice of a "teacher." In all, it is a powerfully sustained elaboration on Nietzsche's concept of Gay Science, that is, of a heroic, creative approach to life.
The first aphorism, #276, is equally intriguing if not, in fact, as famous. In this aphorism, Nietzsche alligns himself with the spirit of Amor fati, the love of fate. What Nietzsche means by this, however, is much more than some form of fatalism. As he says, "I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things. . . some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer." The object is to understand what is and what has been in complete honesty and natural realism; furthermore, in the spirit of this book, the object is to consent, to greet what necessarily is with joy. The spirit of this is continued in #278 where he observes our possession with the thought of death and suggests that the thought of life should prevail.
#283 is extremely important as a prelude to Nietzsche's ideas of the uebermensch, or "overman," and the important process of "self-overcoming." Nietzsche wants spirited people who are full of courage and who will take pleasure in a hard fight. People have to be seasoned and ready to withstand loss. They must be ready to scrutinize themselves, to find in themselves that which needs to be overcome. They must live dangerously. All of this is most often quite misunderstood, and it was certainly misunderstood by Nietzsche's Nazi sister and the later leadership of the Third Reich. What interests Nietzsche is the character (values and self-discipline and spirit) of the warrior and not literally making war. From a psychological point of view, we have to see who Nietzsche himself is --- a wanderer in foreign lands, surviving on a small pension, often suffering for days at a time from excruciating headaches and nausea --- yet, for all of that, he felt himself elevated and embarking on a kind of self-discovery, even world-discovery, that was far beyond what other people had ever had the capacity to achieve. All of this should be obvious from his characterization of that "higher age" as "the age that will carry heroism into the search for knowledge and that will wage wars for the sake of ideas and their consequences." The theme is dramatically continued in #288-9. This living dangerously is not an anarchy either. In #290 he suggests that anarchy comes from weakness; greatness develops its own style and prospers in the discipline of a style. "To 'give style' to one's character --- a great and rare art!" But even with style, the life of the warrior/prophet is always hard; this whole theme is echoed again in #316
Aphorism #301 is the next most important step in the general development of this higher being. While the higher being is a warrior in pursuit of knowledge and therefore sees himself as contemplative, he "overlooks that he himself is really the poet who keeps creating this life." The higher man is no mere spectator; he is one of "those who really continually fashionsomething that had not been there before: the whole eternally growing world of valuations, colors, accents, perspectives, scales, affirmations, and negations." We humans are value-givers. The aphorism ends with one of Nietzsche's most powerful statements. "Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature --- nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present --- and it was we who gave and bestowed it. Only we have created the world that concerns man!" Lest we forget, however, the creative power in us is no mere anarchy of constructions. We create life by criticism. In aphorism #307, he suggests that "when we criticize something, this is no arbitrary and impersonal event; it is, at least very often, evidence of vital energies in us that are growing and shedding a skin."
#324, 327-329, and 335 culminate the development of the "gay science" with "Long live physics! And even more so that which compels us to turn to physics --- our honesty!" Science, philosophy, whatever we want to call this quest, does not have to be sober, serious, overbearing and ego crushing. There must be joy in learning even when we learn to destroy old illusions, even when we learn by hard discipline, even when this seems dangerous (because we may have undercut our very foundations).
In passing, one should note #333 and #334. In the former, Nietzsche powerfully foreshadows Freud by suggesting that "by far the greatest part of our spirit's activity remains unconscious and unfelt." In the latter aphorism, we see Nietzsche in a truly tender and humane reflection --- "love, too, has to be learned." "In the end we are always rewarded for our good will, our patience, fairmindedness, and gentleness with what is strange; gradually, it sheds its veil and turns out to be a new and indescribable beauty." #338-339 are also noteworthy as the beginning of Nietzsche's sustained attack on what he calls the "religion of pity."
At the very end of Book IV and, hence, the original end of The Gay Science, we find aphorism #341, "The Greatest Weight." During the previous summer (August 1881), Nietzsche had experienced this revelation; in his Ecce Homo, he looked back upon it as his most profound idea --- "this highest formula of affirmation that is at all attainable." It is the concept of the "eternal recurrence of the same." He had briefly suggested it already in #285. What would we do if we knew our destiny were to relive the same moments, endlessly through eternity? Wouldn't it be a great weight and an impossible sorrow? But can we imagine the spirit of a person who has so accepted life and who feels such joy in the moment that this would be a welcome fate? It is not that Nietzsche thinks all of this really plausible; it is the idea of what it would mean to us and the discipline it would enforce on us. Imagine putting such commitment into the decisions we make that we would willingly --- no, joyfully --- accept their eternal return to us. Wouldn't we have to take life much more seriously --- more honestly --- than most of us now do?
Copyright 1995, 1998 by Tad Beckman