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Was Nietzsche an "existentialist"?

Written by son of rambow on Thursday, April 01, 2010

Read superficially, as he usually has been read, Nietzsche may appear to be in the same tradition; but he is not. It is for this reason above all that his "attempt at a critique of Christianity" (that is the subtitle of Nietzsche's Antichrist) must neither be ignored, whether to shield the author or Christianity, nor dismissed as a barbarian protest against sympathy and virtue. To be sure, Nietzsche was, no less than Kierkegaard, an apostle of passion and a critic of hypocrisy, but he did not extol passion at the expense of reason, and he repudiated Christianity not because he considered it too rational but because he considered it the archenemy of reason; and his caustic critique of faith, both in the Antichrist and elsewhere, reads like a considered censure of Kierkegaard among others.

It is the differences between Nietzsche and Kierkegaard that strike us first; and in an over all accounting, the differences would surely far outweigh the similarities which Karl Jaspers has catalogued so carefully.(See his lecture on the two men, below.) Jaspers assimilates Nietzsche to Kierkegaard and loses hold of that which mattered most to Nietzsche.

Before Nietzsche published Zarathustra, he wrote in The Gay Science: "What is good-heartedness, refinement, and genius to me, when the
human being who has these virtues tolerates slack feelings in his faith and judgments … Among certain pious ones, I found a hatred of reason and appreciated it: at least they thus betrayed their bad intellectualconscience." In his Zarathustra, Nietzsche says:

"Weariness that wants to reach the ultimate with one leap, with one fatal leap, a poor ignorant weariness that does not want to want any more: this created all gods and afterworlds. Believe me, my brothers: it was the body that despaired of the body ... " And in his Antichrist, five years later, in his long critique of faith he writes: "'Faith' means not wanting to know what is true." Everyone of these barbs, which could be multiplied almost at will by anyone who knows his Nietzsche, is as applicable to Kierkegaard as to
those Nietzsche had in mind when he wrote; perhaps even more so, see-ing how persistently the Dane deceived himself. After all,
Kierkegaard himself insisted that it was "the secret writing in my inmost parts which explains everything"; and when we read this books in these terms, his conception of three stages and the "teleological suspension of the ethical" are seen to be, in part, the desperate attempts of a misshapen man who was, as he reveals in other contexts, completely dominated by the figure of his father, to convince
himself as well as a woman that the strange way in which he had broken his engagement with her had nothing at all to do with all-too-human motives. It would be absurd to claim that such a psychological analysisdoes justice to his work. Of course, it does not. The only reason for as much as mentioning these matters is that the desire not to know the truth was an important element in Kierkegaard's faith.

Sigmund Freud could not have said of Kierkegaard what, according to Ernest Jones, he often said of Nietzsche: "that he had a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any other man who ever lived or was ever likely to live." Was Nietzsche an "existentialist"? When he first received attention, different facets of his thought were noted, and it was only in a defeated Germany after the First World War that Kierkegaard, who had made much of the "existential," became popular and Nietzsche was seen in a new light. Judged by our initial criteria, Nietzsche might well be called an existentialist. The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, opposition to philosophic systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life–all this is eminently characteristic of Nietzsche no less than of Kierkegaard, Jaspers,
or Heidegger. Nor could it be argued that this conception of existentialism is generous to the point of being altogether amorphous and meaningless. Clearly, it excludes such relatively more traditional philosophers as, for example, Whitehead or even Russell, let alone the neo-Thomists; and although positivism and the analytic movement are also in revolt against traditional philosophy, the above description does not fit them.

Still, it is possible to be a little more specific about existentialism. There is yet another feature which all but deternmines the popular image of this movement. Consider the titles of three of Kierkegaard's major works: Fear and Trem-bling, The Concept of Dread, and The Sickness unto Death (which is despair). Death and dread are central in Heideg-ger's thought, too; death and failure are crucial in Jaspers'; and all of these phenomena are prominent in Sartre's work as well. It is entirely proper to consider the writings of these four men as the hard core of existentialism: Kierkegaard introduced the "existential"; Jaspers entitled one of his main works Existenzerhellung and another, smaller volume Existenzphilosophie; Heidegger's Sein und Zeit is widely taken for the magnum opus of this movement; and Sartre is the only major writer who admits he is an existentialist.

If we consider this striking preoccupation with failure, dread, and death one of the essential characteristics of existentialism, Nietzsche can no longer be included in this movement. The theme of suffering recursoften in his work, and he, too, concentrates attention on aspects of life which were often ignored in the nineteenth century; but he makes much less of dread and death than of man's cruelty, resentment, and hypocrisy of the immorality that struts around masked as morality. It is not the sombre and depressed moods that he stresses most but quite another state of mind which appears even much less often in the literature of the past: a"Dionysian" joy and exultation that says Yes to life not in a mood of dogged resolution, which is prominent in later German existentialism, but with love and laughter.

If we broaden our definition of existentialism to include preoccupation with extreme states of mind generally, it fits Nietzsche, too, as well as Rilke, the Dionysian poet. Nevertheless, the difference between Nietzsche's amor fati and the German existentialists is quite considerable, though in many ways French existentialism is much closer to him. Nietzsche's wit, his praise of laughter, and his sparkling prose, now limpid, now like granite, could scarcely be more unlike the vast and solemn tomes of Jaspers or the twilight style of Heidegger. Nor does Kierkegaard with his more epic and self-conscious humor, writing–in the words of an admirer–"almost with tongue in cheek," equal the devastating and incisive style of Nietzsche.

In the story of existentialism, Nietzsche occupies a central place: Jaspers, Heidegger, and Sartre are unthinkable without him, and the
conclusion of Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus sounds like a distant echo of Nietzsche. Camus has also written at length about Nietzsche; Nietzsche is the first name mentioned in Sartre's philosophic main work, L'être et Ie néant; Jaspers has written two whole books about him and discussed himin detail in several others; and Heidegger, in his later works, considers Nietzsche even more important than Jaspers
ever did. As we shall see, however, Heidegger's and Jaspers' Nietzsche pictures tell at least as much about the German existentialists as about Nietzsche.

Existentialism suggests only a single facet of Nietzsche's multifarious influence, and to call him an existentialist means in all likelihood an insufficient appreciation of his full significance. To be sure, his name is linked legitimately with the names of Jaspers, Heidegger, and Sartre; but it is linked no less legitimately with the names of Nicolai Hartmann and Max Scheler, and with Spengler, and with Freud and Adler, and with Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, with Stefan George no less than with Rilke, and with Shaw and Gide as well as with Malraux. Almost every one of these writers saw something different in him.

Existentialism without Nietzsche would be almost like Thomism without Aristotle; but to call Nietzsche an existentialist is a little like calling Aristotle a Thomist.

from: Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, Walter Kaufmann, page 19-22

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  1. 4 komentar: Responses to “ Was Nietzsche an "existentialist"? ”

  2. By Anonymous on April 3, 2010 at 4:44 PM

    Nietzsche wasn't an existentialist, but Kierkegaard was a better philosopher and social critic than Nietzsche. Kierkegaard was the most honest human being who ever lived.

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