Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy book review.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) was born in Saxony, Germany to a Lutheran minister, Carl Nietzsche, and his devout wife, Franzisky.  They had two other children, Elizabeth and Ludwig. Carl died when Friedrich was four.

Friedrich always remembered his father fondly and decades later used the receipt of some unexpected funds to provide his father’s grave with an elaborate headstone. Friedrich’s brother, Ludwig, died during his childhood, but his sister survived well into the 20th century and actually met Hitler in 1935.

Friedrich received a first class education attending college at the Schulpforta near Naumburg followed by graduate studies at both the University of Bonn and the University of Liebzig . At age 24 he was appointed Chair of Philosophy at the University of Basel in Switzerland.

His interest in Philosophy stemmed from an accidental encounter with Schopenhauer’s first book World as Will and Representation . This happened when Nietzsche was about 19 while he was exploring the shelves of a library. Schopenhauer’s argument against religious belief had a profound effect on Nietzsche, and at age 20 he wrote his sister  to tell her he was no longer a Christian.

While at Basel, Nietzsche wrote regularly but could never put together a book that had an organizing theme. His writings changed direction from chapter to chapter and even offered different literary styles in different places (e.g. aphorisms, invented personas, figures of speech, tropes, historical references, etc) which Nietzsche referred to as his “experimentalist mode” of writing; he said he wrote this way to force his readers to really concentrate.

Nietzsche continued to teach at Basel until his health began to fail in 1878, when he was just 35.  For the next few years, Nietzsche increased his literary output. Eventually writing 16 books, two of which were published after his death by his sister, Elizabeth. During his lifetime his books generally sold only 200 to 300 copies.

Nietzsche’s social life was pretty slim. He experienced long periods of loneliness.  He had a desire to marry; however his sever Constance and his inability to interact easily with young women of his social class, made that goal unattainable.

He did develop a longer term friendship with an older wealthy lady who invited him to vacation with her and other friends at her lovely villa overlooking  the Bay of Naples. He loved his visit to Naples.

At age 44,  Nietzsche was taken into custody in Turin hugging the neck of a horse that he was protecting from its owner who was attempting to discipline the animal. After his arrest he behaved erratically. He said that Bismark should be shot, that the pope should be jailed, Nietzsche also claimed  he had placed Caiaphas in fetters, and he had himself been slowly crucified, etc.  After some periods of observation at several mental institutions, doctors were uncertain about his diagnosis.  In 1890 the authorities sent Nietzsche to live with his mother in Germany where his mental illness progressed; he had strokes in 1898 and 1899 and then died in 1900 at the age of 55. He is buried at Rocken a few kilometers southwest of Leipzig in Saxony.

De Botton’s thoughts on Nietzsche

(Note: Our author, Alain de Botton, like most readers of Nietzsche, was unable to latch onto a unifying thread or theme so he divides his large chapter on Nietzsche into 23 sub section that are basically stand alone commentaries strung together loosely with one Nietzschean idea, namely that success grows out of misery, appearing most frequently.)

1. Nietzsche felt is was a good thing to feel wretched. He felt that out of pain comes personal growth.

2. Nietzsche felt his work was the greatest gift to mankind.

3. Nietzsche was formidable to behold. He had a huge head of  hair, a moustache that hung down over his lips, and deeply recessed intense eyes under a very prominent forehead.

4. Nietzsche became fascinated with philosophy reading Schopenhauer at age 19. He wrote at that time that he had accepted a personal life of renunciation and resignation. He also announced that sex is delusional.

5. In 1876, Nietzsche visited Naples living high above the Bay of Naples. This visit enlivened his spirits, and he moved beyond Schopenhauer. Now he felt alive and adjusted his attitudes.

6 Nietzsche  wrote glowing letters to the hostess saying he had an enervating experience.

7. He started to study  Montaigne, Stendhal, Goethe, Galiani all of whom were lovers of art and music and who possessed a more positive view of life.

8. Nevertheless, Nietzsche decided some misery is necessary for a fulfilled life. He began to teach that more misery will lead to greater eventual success in life and that a lack of misery will inhibit success.

9. Nietzsche strove to correct the false impression that great success can be had without pain, misery, and effort. He used the example of the dramatist Stendal whose early plays were mediocre and the artist Raphael whose early drawings lack the life-like qualities found in Michelangelo. Both men through long effort reached the highest ranks as artists.

10. Nietzsche liked the mountains. His favorite mountain location was Sils-Maria in Switzerland, which is located at  a height of 1800 meters above sea level and on the line where northern air flows encounter Mediterranean air flows to create beautiful cloud formations and wonderful air to breath.

11. Nietzsche particularly liked walking the roads and paths around Sils-Maria noting the cows, the trees, etc. These he documented in his notebooks.

12. Nietzsche borrows Montaigne’s idea that we must “use our adversities to make a better life” .

13. Nietzsche notes again that great men often times rise from mediocrity to greatness by working on important details one after another. Nietzsche said attempts to improve all aspects of one’s life at once will usually fail.

14 Nietzsche liked to use horticultural terms to describe and explain. After he left the University of Basel he became an avid gardener . He said “we can convert our angers, drives, feelings of pity, etc. into something good” in the same way a gardener converts manure into beautiful plants (see page 3 below).  We should not be embarrassed by our difficulties or failures, unless we fail to grow something beautiful from these difficulties.

15 Nietzsche noted the Greeks made a great civilization  out of difficult situations.

16. Nietzsche was a non drinker. He felt alcohol and Christianity had weakened and softened European civilization . He even used the word “poisoned” to describe this process.

17.. Nietzsche hated John Stuart Mill (the English thinker) who felt the good or evil in an act is proportional to the pleasure or pain produced. Nietzsche felt people should accept pain and strive for greatness. He even said “build your house on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius” ( a volcano in Italy which had recently erupted)

18. Nietzsche loved his father, a Lutheran pastor, but he had strong words for Christianity. He said it was a force for corruption. He said reading the Bible was an indecent act, and he felt Pilate was the only New Testament character worth our respect. He noted it was “indecent to be a Christian”.

19. Nietzsche complaints against the New Testament go on  and on.  He objects to saying “the meek are blessed”, or advising people “to obey their masters”, or accepting poverty because the rich will have trouble getting into heaven. His main criticism of Christians was that, while they want fulfillment and success, they don’t fight hard enough to gain these things. They possess a religious “comfortableness” that drains life of its full potential.

20. Nietzsche felt Christian attitudes had invaded even non-Christian peoples who quietly accepted this Christian style of “comfortableness”.

21. Nietzsche, like Epicurus, wanted friends but had long periods of loneliness; he wanted marriage but had no ability to woe a young lady; he wanted the good life but mostly lacked enough money to live even a middle class lifestyle; he wanted good health but was sickly; he wanted fame but his books sold poorly, and he spent the last 11 years of life coping with mental illness.

22. Nietzsche kept promoting his ideas even though he never really had much success. He personally promoted his “will to power” idea even as he suffered for years.

23. Nietzsche would probably summarize his main thoughts by saying: “not all pleasure is good, not all pain is bad”.

Stanford University’s take on Nietzsche –

1) Critique of Religion & Morality – Nietzsche is probably best known for his critique of traditional morals. By the late 1800’s intellectuals were demanding  rational justifications for beliefs and behaviors that were commonly accepted because they were underpinned by religious beliefs.
Nietzsche went further announcing “god is dead” and proclaimed that Christianity no longer commands the ethical commitments it once did.  He went on to say these prior moral commitments were positively harmful. He argues the most cherished aspects of our way of life must be ruthlessly investigated dismantled, and reconstituted in a healthier form.  A societal sense of concern for others is for Nietzsche nothing but a dangerous historical innovation.

Nietzsche elaborates on how this innovation grew out of a noble class “morality” found in Greek and Roman society into a standard of behavior for all people. He goes further and notes these voluntary  standards of good moral behavior have begun to mutate into the requirement that all be treated in a high “ moral” way.  Formerly what was voluntary goodness is becoming compulsory goodness.

Nietzsche explores the disconnect in Christianity where sermons about hell and damnation are preached by the same preachers that urge love toward others. How can a religion simultaneously preach unloving vengefulness and a requirement to love the other in nearly the same breath.

Nietzsche investigates the historical connection between guilt and indebtedness. Deadbeats who didn’t pay their debts where made to feel that they were bad or guilty, so feelings of guilt grew out of indebtedness. Then Nietzsche gets into the psychological aspect of guilt feelings and how such feelings can cause mental illness. Nietzsche determines that feelings of guilt are basically very bad.

Nietzsche then explores asceticism and self denial. He says such behavior is a person’s outward expression of his/her own sense of worthlessness. It is a manifestation of a “purified guilt”. Again Nietzsche sees  as false the Christian idea of sorrow for and doing penance for sins. He claims feeling of guilt drain people of their sense of self worth.

Nietzsche is equally forceful in his attack on feelings of compassion. He says altruistic behavior is bad because it promotes feelings of egoism or superiority over others. Nietzsche felt it was better to let others suffer because that suffering will promote their growth.

Stanford notes that Nietzsche addresses other moral ideas he dislikes (e.g. sin, otherworldly transcendence, free will, anti-sensualist moral outlooks, etc.), but the Stanford experts don’t elaborate.

2) Value Creation – Students of philosophy have searched Nietzsche ‘s writing expecting to find an alternative set of moral values but have found little.

2.1) Nietzsche’s Meta-ethical Stance and the Nature of Value Creation – Nietzsche felt values are created by the individual not discovered in the broader world. (Sanford’s experts remark: This is a very subjective approach to the evaluation of “values”, and it is hard to make it workable because our “values” are the things we use to interact with other people and the rest of the world. This necessarily requires much objectivity (i.e. thinking about the value sets others use today and those used in the past) in deciding what values to adopt going through life.)

2..2) Nietzschean Values – Now some Nietzschean values need to be considered. Six factors are presented below.

2.2.1) Power and Life – Nietzsche is most influenced by ideas of power. Everything that heightens a man’s sense of power is good, and the reverse is also true; anything born of weakness is bad.

What is happiness? Anything that gives the feeling that a man’s power if growing brings happiness.

The best goal is not contentedness but more power; not peace but war; not virtue but fitness.

After Nietzsche’s death this idea was summarized as “might makes right”. However, his supporters say Nietzsche is saved by his occasional  assertion that internal self control and the development of cultural excellence were better than merely seeking domination over others.

Scholars later suggested Nietzsche really felt power is just a tendency toward growth, strength, domination, or expansion, and he was mostly focused on the overcoming of resistance.

2.2.2) Affirmation – This is the second value commitment prominent in Nietzsche ‘s work. He feel affirmation of life is most important. He affirms life by seeking perfection in our work and by not reproaching others we disagree with but rather by influencing others so profoundly that our  opponents seem “dark” to others.

We also affirm our life by imagining that if our life were to recur in all its current detail we would affirm it as it is. Nietzsche scholars use affirmation of life as the strongest argument against those who would call Nietzsche a nihilist.

2.2.3) Trustfulness/Honesty – Here after we have affirmed life, we now honestly assess what our life and our world are really like.  For Nietzsche honesty and truthfulness trump all other values. He goes on the say, honesty requires the pursuit of knowledge. He feels scientific testing particularly in the social sciences is all important. He says the man in search of truth is a courageous  man. In this area Nietzsche attacks any claims to knowledge that arise from reading religious texts. He said belief in revealed truth amounts to cowardice. He also points out that the search for truth is a form of asceticism because it might require the setting aside of previously cherished values. “Truth at any price” can lead to great internal anguish, but also great growth.

2.2.4) Art and Artistry – Nietzsche feels we need truth, but we also need illusion. So he was a great proponent of the arts. He shared a love of art with Schopenhauer and said we can rework and remake ugliness in life by appealing to our artistic side. Nietzsche felt love of the arts can help us cope with the unsettling truths that our quest for truth is likely to uncover.

2.2.5) Individuality, Autonomy, “Freedom of Spirit” – All through Nietzsche you find the importance that he places on individuality and “free will”.  However, he limits this by saying its worth is not the same for all people. Special people must have their individuality and free will respected much more fully. The quest then is to determine what makes certain people special?

Nietzsche says men who accept religious values or any value system delivered from beyond their own consideration are less entitled.

Hilter meets Elizabeth Nietzsche 1935 seek truth and possess a will to power are “overmen” or “higher men” and are therefore entitled to autonomy and freedom of spirit. These higher men create laws for themselves and exhibit the ability of self governance so they can “stand surety” for their own futures.

2.2.6) Pluralism – Nietzsche must have sensed that some of his value propositions were in opposition to each other, so he posited this final way of arriving at values: pluralism. Here he allows that there can be seeming conflicts between truths, or power goals that pull different ways, etc. So Nietzsche allows that a person may have to be responsive to a multiplicity of values, virtues, outlooks and perspectives on a given question. So pluralistic responses are allowed.

This leaves serious Nietzsche scholars in the dark, as they try to create a unified theory. The only interesting attempt to come to terms is an agreement that Nietzsche wants the strength and health of his followers, and he believes that “the will to power” is the overriding value that will provide them “strength and health”. So the “will to power” is given top billing in this section.

3.) The Self and Self-fashioning – Here Nietzsche gets into the individual psyche. He claims that psychology is the queen of all the sciences and says earlier philosophers failed by not replacing destructive  concepts like sin, morality, and ascetic self-denial with self affirming ideas from psychology.

Nietzsche is torn at some places; he adopts the idea of self and self-fashioning and at other places he denies the things traditionally associated with “self” such as the soul and the ability to think, or will, or even feel.

More particularly Nietzsche treats the soul as very complex, changeable, and subject to disintegration.  He says it is a “social structure of drives and effects.” In this model the soul becomes a sub-personal constituent element or part that makes up the more important personal psyche or “the self”.

Nietzsche sees the self as a work in progress not part of the basic metaphysical equipment with which a person enters the world. This makes sense  for Nietzsche because each man is constantly striving through pain and misery  toward “power” and is therefore constantly refashioning his personal “self”.

4.) Difficulties of Nietzsche’s Philosophical Writing – Nietzsche’s novel ideals that question traditional philosophical understandings are appealing; however, his way of writing makes his ideas difficult to apprehend. As mentioned in his biography above, he changes subjects and styles from chapter to chapter in his books and as noted by Stanford scholars (above)  his ideas do at times contradict each other. All this leaves his readers feeling unmoored, but Nietzsche offers them little sympathy saying his style and thought processes are good because they force the reader to struggle and think.

So Nietzsche’s writing style accords with his general philosophy which might be summed up “all real advancement comes through struggle, misery, and pain”.

5.) A summing up with three Key Doctrines – Here are the three doctrines which Stanford feels most fully define Nietzsche ‘s philosophy.

5.1.) The Will to Power – Nietzsche idea of the will to power posits that there are power centers where  individuals, organizations, or groups are striving to increase their power and influence. But it is clear that if all mentions of the “will to power” in Nietzsche ‘s writings are taken together he is talking about some sort of “centers of force” like the “centers of energy” postulated by 19th century physicists or clusters of growing super-organisms identified by biologists.

It is also clear Nietzsche saw the “will to power” as a way of overcoming resistance, and he sees it as opposed to Schopenhauer’s will to life which is more muted and promotes pessimism. Clearly this concept is central, although some say not all important, to Nietzsche ‘s philosophy.

5.2.) Perspectivism – Here Nietzsche points out that the work of earlier philosophers have suffered from their failure to consider the impact of their own perspective on their work. He is particularly critical of “dogmatic” philosophers who fail to acknowledge the bias introduced into their work by their belief in God.

Nietzsche holds that no philosopher can eliminate the bias introduced by individual perspective. This is directly counter to the belief of philosophers since Plato. The question then is “can a philosopher step outside his personal perspectives an seek truth in a truly objective fashion?”  Nietzsche says a “view from nowhere” is impossible.

Nietzsche also disagreed with the  a priori assumptions used by earlier philosophers regarding the world around us (e.g. space, time, physical things, causal relations, etc.).  Nietzsche said the objective philosopher must study the human modes of cognition using empirical psychology.  He went further saying “ every great philosophy so far” has been “the personal confession of its author, a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir”.  Early in his career, Nietzsche exposes the psychological theories or biases  that earlier philosophers brought to their work, but his later writings seem to leave off criticism of earlier philosophers.

5.3.) The Eternal Recurrence of the Same – Here Nietzsche holds that there is an eternal recurrence of the particular situations in our lives. This doctrine is nowhere spelled out with specificity, but Nietzsche  asserts it is his most important idea. Most readers who encountered this idea in Nietzsche ‘s writings felt it was a cosmological hypothesis about the structure of time or of fate.

Later commentators felt this concept was just a rhetorical device designed to force  readers to focus of their current lives. If a reader is faced the prospect of reliving his exact life again, he is likely to think “is my current life all it should be?”. Would I want to repeat the decisions I have made?

Others have said it also serves to counter the reader’s natural bias toward optimistically thinking about the future rather than thinking about adjusting or reversing early decisions in this life. This concept of eternally reliving one’s current life in exactly the same way is hard to imagine. Even if you love your current wife, would you want to relive your  life with her endlessly?  No, most commentators feel even the happiest person would eventually want the cycle to be “over and done with.”