Tom Kettle’s preface from ‘The Life of Friedrich Nietzsche’ by Daniel Halévy, published 1911.
The duel between Nietzsche and civilisation is long since over; and that high poet and calamitous philosopher is now to be judged as he appears in the serene atmosphere of history, which—need it be said?—he infinitely despised. The crowd, the common herd, the multitude—which he also despised—has recorded its verdict with its usual generosity to the dead, and that verdict happens to be an ample revenge. It has dismissed Nietzsche’s ideas in order to praise his images. It has conceded him in literature a brilliant success, and has treated his philosophy as fundamental nonsense of the sort that calls for no response except a shrug of the shoulders. The immoralist who sought to shatter all the Tables of all the Laws, and to achieve a Transvaluation of all Values, ends by filling a page in Die Ernte and other Anthologies for the Young. And in certifying his style to be that of a rare and real master the “crowd” has followed a true instinct. More than Schopenhauer, more even than Goethe, Nietzsche is accounted by the critics of his country to have taught German prose to speak, as Falstaff says, like a man o’ this world. The ungainly sentences, many-jointed as a dragon’s tail, became short, definite, arrowy. “We must ‘Mediterraneanise’ German music,” he wrote to Peter Gast, and in fact he did indisputably “Mediterraneanise” the style of German literature. That edged and glittering speech of his owed much to his acknowledged masters, La Rochefoucauld, Voltaire, and Stendhal, the lapidaries of French. But it was something very intimately his own; he was abundantly dowered with the insight of malice, and malice always writes briefly and well. It has not the time to be obscure. Nietzsche had this perfection of utterance, but a far richer range and volume. He was a poet by grace divine, and a true Romantic for all the acid he dropped on Romanticism; the life of his soul was an incessant creative surge of images, metaphors, symbolisms, mythologies. These two tendencies produced as their natural issue that gnomic and aphoristic tongue which sneers, preaches, prophesies, chants, intoxicates and dances through the pages of Also Sprach Zarathustra. German critics have applied to Nietzsche, and with even greater fitness, Heine’s characterisation of Schiller: “With him thought celebrates its orgies. Abstract ideas, crowned with vine-leaves, brandish the thyrsus and dance like bacchantes; they are drunken reflections.” Of many aspects of his own personality Nietzsche may have thought not wisely but too well; but in this regard it appears that he did not exaggerate himself. “After Luther and Goethe,” he wrote to Rohde, “a third step remained to be taken…. I have the idea that with Zarathustra I have brought the German language to its point of perfection.” The German world of letters has not said No! to a claim so proud as to seem mere vanity. Friedrich Nietzsche holds a safe, and even a supreme position in the history of literature.
What is to be said of his place in the history of philosophy? Höffding allows him a high “symptomatic value,” but only that. His work has the merit of a drama, in which the contradictions of modern thought, vibrant with passion, clash and crash together in a tumultuous conflict which, unhappily, has no issue. M. Alfred Fouillée, who has contrasted him with Guyau—that noblest of “modern” thinkers—in his book Nietzsche et l’immoralisme, draws out a table of antitheses, and cancelling denials against affirmations, arrives at a result that looks remarkably like zero. Nietzsche in truth was a man of ecstasies and intuitions, rather than of consequent thought. He troubled little to purge himself of self-contradictions, as became a writer whose first word had been a vehement assault on that Socratic rationalism which, as he believed, had withered up the vital abundance of Greece. His instincts were those of an oracle, a mystagogue; and mystagogues do not argue. Heinrich von Stein, in styling his first book an Essay in Lyrical Philosophy, spoke in terms of his master’s mind.
With Nietzsche reason deliberately abdicates, bearing with it into exile its categories of good and evil, cause and end. Schopenhauer had suggested to him that the true key to the riddle of existence was not intellect but will; behind the mask of phenomena the illuminated spirit discerned not a Contriving but a Striving, a monstrous Will, blind as old Oedipus, yearning like him through blood and anguish to a possible redemption. But in time he cast off Schopenhauer and pessimism. The Will to Live he “construed in an optimistic sense,” and it darkened into that other mystery, at once vaguer and more malign, the Will to Power. The problem remained to find a ground for optimism, and a clue to the harmony, to the recurring rhythms and patterns of reality as we know it. So was born what is perhaps the characteristic idea of Nietzsche. The universe is not a phenomenon of Will, it is a phenomenon of Art. “In my preface to the book on Wagner I had already,” wrote Nietzsche in 1886, “presented art, and not morality, as the essentially metaphysical activity of man: in the course of the present book I reproduce in many forms the singular proposition that the world is only to be justified as an artistic phenomenon.” For the optimist quand-même this interpretation has many advantages. Cruelty, sorrow and disaster need no longer dismay him; since a world may at the same time be a very bad world and a very good tragedy. “It may be,” the lyricist, turned philosopher, wrote later, “that my Zarathustra ought to be classified under the rubric Music.” These two passages, with a hundred others, determine the atmosphere into which we are introduced. We have to deal not with a thinker who expounds a system, but with a prophet who dispenses a Revelation: Nietzsche is not the apologist but the mystic of Neo-Paganism.
Coming to closer range, we may dismiss at once a great part of his polemical writings. They were a sort of perpetual bonfire in which from time to time Nietzsche burned what he had once adored, and much more beside. They bear witness to that proud independence, one may almost say that savage isolation, which was the native climate of his soul. Niemandem war er Untertan, “he was no man’s man,” he wrote of Schopenhauer, and that iron phrase expressed his own ideal and practice. His brochures of abuse he regarded as a mode, though an unhappy mode, of liberation. He had little love of them himself in his creative moments: he desired with a fierce desire to rid his soul of hatreds and negatives and rise to a golden affirmation. “I have been a fighter,” declares Zarathustra, “only that I might one day have my hands free to bless.” “In dying I would offer men the richest of my gifts. It was from the sun I learned that, from the sun who when he sets is so rich; out of his inexhaustible riches he flings gold into the sea, so that the poorest fishermen row with golden oars.” It is not the Will to Power that speaks here, but that older and more sacred fountain of civilisation, the Will to Love. But if Nietzsche had that inspiration one is tempted to say of him what he said of Renan: He is never so dangerous as when he loves. The truth is that he had the genius of belittlement. It was the other side of his vanity, a vanity so monstrous that it seems from the first to have eaten of the insane root. There is no humour, no integral view of things, behind his critical work. It is sick with subjectivity. And yet Zarathustra in a temper is, by times, far more amusing than sinister. What could be better than some of the characterisations in A Psychologist’s Hedge-School, “Seneca, the Toreador of virtue… Rousseau, or the return to nature in impuris naturalibus… John Stuart Mill; or wounding lucidity”? But when, in this mood, he gnaws and nibbles about the sanctuaries of life; when he tells us that the true Fall of Man was the Redemption, that the two most noxious corruptions known to history are Christianity and alcohol; when he presses his anti-Feminism to a point that goes beyond even the gross German tradition of which Luther’s Table Talk is a monument, the best that one can do for him is to remember that he often took too much chloral. It may be that to the circles in these countries to whom the cult of Nietzscheanism appeals, this strain of his thought also appeals. This particular music is not played on many trumpets, but every Superman ought to know it. And he ought to know further that Zarathustra, being brave, gibes not only at St. Paul, but even at Herbert Spencer, and has no more toleration for the gospel according to Marx than for that according to Matthew.
What is the gospel of this ambiguous prophet? It is, he himself declares, a long “Memento vivere.” His own experience taught him that the characteristic of life, in its highest moments, is to be unimaginably alive. From a mere process it becomes a sudden intoxication, and on the psychology of that intoxication, which is the psychology of the artist and also that of the lover and the saint, he has written pages which are a wonder of pure light. From this standpoint he criticises justly the mechanical theory of adjustments in which there is nothing to adjust, of adaptations in which there is nothing to adapt, the whole ab extra interpretation of life popularised by Darwin, Spencer, and the English school in general. The living unit is more than a mere node or knot in a tangle of natural selection; it is a fountain of force, of spontaneity, constantly overflowing. “The general aspect of life is not indigence and famine, but on the contrary richness, opulence, even an absurd prodigality.” To live is for Nietzsche, as for the Scholastics, to be a centre of self-movement. With the Pragmatists he asserts the primacy of life over thought. But this tension of consciousness, this Dionysiac drunkenness, is only a foundation, it is not yet a philosophy. Philosophy, or at all events moral philosophy, begins with the discovery that there are other people in the world. Your ego, thus drunken and expansive, collides sharply with another ego, equally drunken and expansive, and it becomes at once necessary to frame a code of relations, a rule of the road. Is this force and spontaneity of the individual to flow out towards others through the channel of domination or through that of love?
Zarathustra had marched with the Germans over prostrate France, he had said in his Gargantuan egoism: “If there were Gods, how could I bear not to be a God? Consequently there are no Gods.” If the Goths and the Vandals had read Hegelian metaphysics, observes Fouillée, they would have answered this question as Nietzsche answered it. The living unit accumulates a superabundance of force in order to impose its power on others… an andern Macht auslassen. The Will to Power is the sole source of human activity. The strong must live as warriors and conquerors, adopting as their three cardinal virtues pride, pleasure, and the love of domination. Pity is the deepest of corruptions; it but doubles pain, adding to the pain of him who suffers the pain of him who pities. If you have helped any one, you must wash the hands that helped him, for they are unclean. The Crusaders brought home but one treasure, the formula, namely, of the Assassins, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” Science is mere illusionism; but the warrior, knowing how to be hard—for that is the new law—will impose his own arbitrary values on all things, and will make life so good that he will desire it to be indefinitely repeated. The earth, thus disciplined, will bring forth the Superman, who, having danced out his day, will disappear to be recreated by the Eternal Return. Thus spake Zarathustra.
The greatest difficulty that one experiences before such a doctrine as this is the difficulty of taking it seriously. Nietzsche, who had a tendency to believe that every reminiscence was an inspiration, is by no means as original as he thought. After all, there were sceptics, optimists, tyrants and poets before Zarathustra. The “common herd” may not be given to discussing ethical dualism, but it knows that since society began there have been two laws, one for the rich and another for the poor. Scepticism as to the objectivity of human values, moral and intellectual, is no new heresy, but a tradition as old as science, and almost as old as faith. The notion of an Eternal Return, crystallised by Plato from a mist of earlier speculation, had exercised many modern thinkers; one has only to name Heine, Blanqui, von Naegeli, Guyau, Dostoievsky. The Romantics had, at the beginning of Nietzsche’s century, as Schlegel wrote, “transcended all the ends of life,” and, fascinated with the idea of mere power, had filled the imagination of Europe with seas and storms that raged for the sole sake of raging. There was no Scholastic compiler of a text-book on Ethics but had “posed morality as a problem,” and asked in his first quæstio whether there was a science of good and evil. The Superman so passionately announced by Nietzsche had already been created by the enigmatic and dilettante fancy of Renan. The name itself was as old as Goethe, though it is to be recalled that not Goethe but Mephistopheles applies it to Faust as a sneer and a temptation. Zarathustra is not a prophet nor even a pioneer; he brings but a new mode of speech, his triumphant and dancing phrase sweeps into its whirl a thousand ghosts and phantoms. And what is to be said of the doctrine itself? Perhaps the most adequate answer to Nietzsche, on the plane of his own ideas, is that of Guyau. Both were poets, strayed into philosophy, both seize upon life as the key to all reality. But Guyau finds in the spontaneous outflow of individual life, itself the spring of sociability, fraternity, love. An organism is more perfect as it is more sociable, there can be no full intensity without wide expansion. “There is a certain generosity inseparable from existence, without which one withers up interiorly and dies. The mind must flower; morality, altruism are the flower of human life.” The reduction of all consciousness to one mode—in Nietzsche the Will to Power—is neither new nor difficult. La Rochefoucauld tracked down behind all motives the motive of self-interest, and modern simplifiers have amused themselves by analysing passion into unconscious thought. The soul, as St. Augustine tells us, is all in every part; and since the same self is always present, it is obviously possible in some fashion or another to translate any one mood of its life into any other. But such suppression of the finer details, while interesting as a tour de force, is not scientific psychology. The Will to Power is not sufficiently definite to serve the turn of a moralist or even an immoralist. Power is of many kinds. Love hath its victories not less renowned than hate. Had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter, history would, says Pascal, have been different, and in the phrase of the French chanson there are often more conquests ambushed in the hair of Delilah than in that of Samson. Nietzsche himself perceived that it was necessary to establish a hierarchy of values as between different manifestations of “power,” but this Umwerthung aller Werthe was never either achieved or achievable. The evangel of Zarathustra dissolves into mere sound and fury for lack of what the Court of Equity calls reasonable particularity. Most notable is this in regard to the two laws. Am I a Superman—or rather a potential ancestor of the Superman, for in this case hereditary privilege runs backwards—with the right to found my life on pride, pleasure, and the love of power, or am I a slave with no right except to remain a slave? The test is astral, and even nebulous. If you can compel the stars to circle about you as their centre, if you have a chaos in you and are about to beget a dancing star, then you are of the seed of the Superman. Unhappily, the only people who could seriously entertain such an estimate of themselves are the very wealthy and the very mad. Zarathustra derides the mob in order to flatter the snob; he is malgré lui the casuist of the idle rich, the courtier of international finance.
Friedrich Nietzsche was an optimist. It was a paradox of courage. There is nothing nobler or more valiant in the history of thought than his refusal to let the sun be dimmed by the mist of his own suffering. “No invalid has the right to be a pessimist.” “Let them beware: the years in which my vitality sank to its minimum were those in which I ceased to be a pessimist.” That is magnificent, but it is not philosophy. If Nietzsche by his insomnia and his wounded eyes is pledged on the point of honour to optimism, is not Schopenhauer by his fixed income and excellent digestion similarly pledged to pessimism? But Zarathustra’s optimism is not merely positive, it is ecstatic: to express its fulness he creates the formula of the Eternal Return. He claps his hands and cries “Encore!” to life. He is drunken with joy as men are in the taverns with corn and the grape, and he shouts “The same again!”
This Eternal Return is presented to us as a conclusion of mathematical physics and spectrum analysis. St. Thomas Aquinas taught, following Aristotle, that the stars were composed of a substance nobler than that of earth, not subject to birth or death, and so immune from corruption. But Fraunhofer and his successors have, with their prisms and telescopes, discovered in the stars the same eighty-one or eighty-two elements which constitute the earth. Since then we have but a finite number of indestructible elements and forces, and an infinite space and time—or at least a space and time to which we can conceive no limits—it must follow that the same combinations will repeat themselves incessantly both in space and time. There is not only an Eternal Return, but an Infinite Reduplication. And if thought, as Nietzsche assumed, is only the phosphorescence accompanying certain arrangements of matter, the same conscious life must also repeat itself. One does not stay to discuss this phantasy of mathematics except to say that whoever was entitled to entertain it Zarathustra was not. If science is, as he held, a mere linked illusionism, how can it give so absolute a prophecy? To Nietzsche it was no conclusion, but a reminiscence from Greek speculation which came to him, disguised in the flame of an inspiration, under that pyramidal rock near Sorlei, “six thousand feet above men and time.” He accepted it because it seemed to him the supreme formula of optimism. His mind was incited to it perhaps by that sombre passage in which his rejected master, Schopenhauer, declares that if you were to knock on the graves, with power to summon forth the dead to rise up and live their lives again, none would answer to your call. Christianity agrees with Schopenhauer; for though Christianity is an optimism, it is founded on pessimism. It is an optimism poised on a centre that does not lie within the walls of space and time. Christianity called a new world into existence to redress the balance of the old; and were this old world all—a closed circuit, a rounded whole—Zarathustra might dance and chant through all its Campo Santos without finding more than a very few to rise up and follow him.
The practical consequences to which Nietzsche was led were in his own phrase inactual, out of time and out of season. Zarathustra is, by a natural kinship, a prophet of the Anarchists, but he hated Anarchism; by a strange transformation, the genius of a certain school of Socialists, but he despised Socialism. German officials in Poland may find in him a veritable Oppressors’ Handbook; he danced through the streets at the victory over France, but he derided the German State and Empire as a new idol. He contemned women, but praised indissoluble marriage. He preached pleasure, but celebrated chastity in a noble hymn. He was all for authority and inequality, “a Joseph de Maistre,” says Fouillée, “who believes in the hangman without believing in the Pope”; but when he looked at a criminal on trial he acquitted everybody except only the judge. He denounced Bismarck and the Kaiser for being too democratic; he regarded Science, too, as disastrously democratic, because it subjected all phenomena, great and small, to the same uniform laws. Will was his god, but he saw the world under the aspect of a Mahometan determinism, and submitted himself to a resignation, an adoption of the hostile ways of existence, an amor fati which a Stoic might think extravagant. A German proletarian, full of German prejudices, he thought himself Polish and noble, and boasted of being a sans-patrie and a “good European.” Pity, generosity, self-immolation, the whole ritual of civilisation, were condemned by Zarathustra and practised by him. In brief, Nietzsche never rose above a sort of philosophical cinematograph; he had the glitter but never the hard definiteness of the diamond which he chose as his symbol.
But it would be very superficial to suppose that a thought so passionate could be altogether unreal. Zarathustra is a counter-poison to sentimentalism, that worst ailment of our day. He brings a sort of ethical strychnine which taken in large doses is fatal, but in small doses is an incomparable tonic. He disturbed many who were woefully at ease in Zion, and was a poet of the heroic life. Germany, so apt to lose herself in the jungle of scholarship, needed to be reminded that erudition exists for the sake of life and not life for the sake of erudition. To literature, when he wrote in conformity with its settled and common tradition, he gave great chants of courage, loneliness and friendship. In M. Halévy’s book, founded on that of Madame Förster-Nietzsche, we have in English for the first time a portrait of him in the intimacies of his life and thought. It exhibits him as better than his gospel, a hundred times better than most of those disturbers of civilisation who call themselves his disciples.
T. M. KETTLE