Finding the right Nietzsche in life

Nietzsche
June 23, 1995

Nietzsche subtitled his Genealogy of Morals "A Polemic", and this might have served Peter Berkowitz's study of Nietzsche equally well. Here is an impressive and elegant exegesis of Nietzsche's major works as a unified opus.

Berkowitz advances an interpretation designed to prise Nietzsche from the grip of the post-modernists and to return him to a more traditional niche in political philosophy. This is encapsulated in the un-Nietzschean (and infelicitous) formula of "right making based on right knowing". For Berkowitz contends that Nietzsche still held to a cosmic metaphysics and account of human nature from which real needs, moral order, human excellence and an ethics of perfection were derived.

Wisdom yields virtue. Yet if Nietzsche is thus reconstituted, it is here that Berkowitz locates his fatal flaw. For he interprets freedom as Nietzsche's highest virtue, where liberation from all restraint entails mastery of necessity; of any restriction of the will. It is through Zarathustra that the logic of this quest is carried to its extreme, and the analysis of this comprises the central chapters of the book.

Berkowitz interprets the eternal return as Zarathustra's most grandiose attempt at domination: to master time itself. But in his failure, as in his subsequent degeneration, the author finds Zarathustra's - and Nietzsche's - inability to fulfil the ultimate imperative to self-deification. He strongly implies that post-modern ideals of self-creation are equally doomed. An excess of hubris finally condemns them all and Berkowitz is clearly happier with the more modest ideal he elicits from later work, of self-knowledge of the noble soul.

Although all this renders Nietzsche's thinking coherent and philosophically familiar, it ignores aspects of that thinking that render a more traditional pursuit of virtue profoundly problematic from a Nietzschean perspective. For while Nietzsche might use the terminology of political philosophy, he often deploys it either ironically (something of which there is too little appreciation here) or subversively. The will he invokes is surely not, for example, the rather Kantian conscious and intentional will that aspires to positive freedom through self-mastery, but an impulse to growth and self- overcoming that is closer to the instincts than the soul.

Morality for Nietzsche has a physiological basis. Similarly, the cosmology he alludes to cannot play the same role as traditional metaphysics, since it points to a primordial whirl from which no stable truth or definitive value is to be derived. While it is true that he insists on ranking human types, is not his criterion precisely their capacity to glimpse and come to terms with this abyss; to live without certainty and authority?

From this point of view, it is difficult to cast Nietzsche as a traditionalist and unsurprising that the ethical quest thus formulated, should fail. But in any case, if the death of God entails the collapse of moral authority, is Nietzsche not a prophet of a real contemporary dilemma? Reluctant to endorse the (re)creation of values in the shadow of nihilism, Berkowitz can only end, albeit provocatively, by describing our bereavement as an unsubstantiated and debilitating myth, one which we might choose to dismiss in response to Nietzsche's graphic portrayal of its consequences. Berkowitz counsels us to confront the gravity of our situation with a willingness to rediscover the "venerable and forgotten" ideals of the past. But is this possible after Nietzsche and his prognoses?

Diana Coole is senior lecturer in politics, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist

Author - Peter Berkowitz
ISBN - 0 674 624 424
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £.95
Pages - 308

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