Practically everyone finds something to criticize in modernity, but Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is the most disturbed and disturbing of critics. He attacks modernity in all its forms, but in doing so he radicalizes certain modern assumptions – assumptions on full display in Hobbes’s Leviathan, for example – and thus attacks himself. This profoundly self-critical character makes Nietzsche a compelling choice for ACS, if one gives thought about how to teach him well in relation to our mission as an Augustinian university. Our Moderns course used to be called “Modernity and its Discontents”: the title applies to no one more than Nietzsche.
Born in Germany, formed by a liberal education whose breadth and rigorousness we can only try to imagine, Nietzsche was trained as a philologist and showed his brilliance early. A recommendation by his teacher Friedrich Wilhelm Fritsch secured him the position of professor at the University of Basel when he was only 24; as Walter Kaufman remarks, “his unusual success does not seem to have humbled him” (Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 26). Nietzsche would eventually leave the university, however, for reasons of health as well as temperament. His spirit was ill-suited for ordinary scholarly research, to say nothing of grading papers.
Nietzsche’s writings testify to the transformations and upheavals in his mind and heart. While still teaching at Basel, he was an ardent follower of Richard Wagner; two great texts from this time are The Birth of Tragedy and Untimely Meditations, the latter being a series of extended essays, including On the Use and Disadvantage of History for Life. In time, however, the friendship with Wagner grew uneasy on both sides, until at last there was a break. For Nietzsche this led to a descent into skepticism – austere, self-lacerating at first, but ultimately cheerful. Writing as a “free spirit,” Nietzsche wrote some of the works with which he particularly identified himself, including Human, All-Too-Human and The Gay Science. His maturity somehow included both the profoundly visionary revelations of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and a comprehensive critique of modernity in Beyond Good and Evil and its more polemical sequel, Genealogy of Morals. Finally, there come works written in a white heat in the last year and a half of his productive life, including Twilight of Idols, Antichrist, and Ecce Homo. These are strident, bombastic, unfiltered – but for that very reason, important for considering Nietzsche’s self-understanding and the scope of his project.
Nietzsche can contribute a great deal to an ACS syllabus, but one has to be aware of certain challenges. Not only is Nietzsche a radical critic of modernity, he is no less one of Christianity. (The title of Antichrist is at least partly self-referential!) This could be seen as reason to avoid Nietzsche altogether, were it not true that any serious and thoughtful person today must eventually face his challenge. It is around us whether we like it or not. Nietzsche wrote that the Christian faith “has become unbelievable” (Gay Science #343) long before the churches of Europe began to be repurposed as bars and dance clubs. But Nietzsche also prompts moderns to reflect on their atheism in a far more serious and harrowing way than they are comfortable doing. His own famous or infamous statement, “God is dead,” (Gay Science #125) is, on reflection, deeply ambiguous. A god who does not exist cannot die, of course. And that death, whatever it may be, is, by Nietzsche’s description, a catastrophe of which most people – even unbelievers – are still unaware. For Nietzsche, everything in modern times still depends on Christianity for many things, especially its morality. Whoever denies God and looks forward to a safe, equal, autonomous, humane, and moral future, is profoundly mistaken about our situation, which is a slow decline into “the last man” and loss of our very humanity.
So while one would not in a million years consider Nietzsche as a “mission text” in ACS, he can be very important in the overall ACS syllabus. To read Nietzsche is to confront one of the greatest challenges for the Catholic intellectual tradition in late modernity. It is also to read a self-critique of modernity that is profoundly restless and, as such, a possible stepping stone to the alternative that refuses to die: Augustine and the Catholic intellectual tradition. That explains why Cardinal Ratzinger would discuss Nietzsche respectfully in his Introduction to Christianity and again take him up in an encyclical as Pope Benedict XVI. Indeed, not a few have been unsettled by Nietzsche at the beginning but find their way to Augustine in the end.
What text of Nietzsche’s works well in ACS? Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, and Genealogy of Morals have all been taught fairly regularly, which makes sense: they are all famous and mature works, but they come before his overheated final phase. In particular, these works are important for offering Nietzsche’s varying attempts to limn an alternative to modernity that in some way draws on the spiritual depth of the Bible but is “faithful to the earth” (in the words of Zarathustra). Nietzsche’s lifelong fascination and rivalry with the Greeks – Greek tragedy early, Greek philosophy late – must also be understood in these terms. The last chapter of Beyond Good and Evil is titled “What is noble?” and stands as the culmination of his attempt to overcome the utilitarianism of Socrates and his modern successors. All of these are available in translations by Walter Kaufman; The Portable Nietzsche (Penguin, 1977) and Basic Writings of Nietzsche (Modern Library, 2000) are collections, and there are stand-alone editions as well. (Kaufman has limitations as an interpreter but is good as a translator.)
There are, however, reasons for avoiding those major works in ACS. Zarathustra is strange, visionary, overwrought poetry that may be deep, but can also be baffling and weird, like a bad drug trip through the Gospels. Beyond Good and Evil is a much more self-controlled work, and it is remarkable, but it is also difficult for first-year students because it presumes and grapples with so much of the tradition. Both of the preceding books would have to be excerpted. Genealogy is more self-contained and could be taught as a whole, but it is taught often in the philosophy Foundations class and probably best avoided in ACS.
What I recommend instead, therefore, are Nietzsche’s earlier and shorter works. Human, All-Too-Human has been particularly successful for me. The book consists of many short aphorisms arranged into several thematic chapters. Students like reading and interpreting aphorisms, and these are very accessible yet thought-provoking. Nietzsche observes psychology, friendship, love, family, faith, and other things. Give students plenty of room to select aphorisms that mean something to them, and encourage them to thread together aphorisms that seem to illuminate one another. The translation Hollingdale for Cambridge is alright (1996).
One can teach a portion of this book for 1-2 weeks, having taught Pascal’s aphorisms for the same amount of time earlier in the semester. I have also paired the book well with Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, because Woolf is certainly aware of the problems discussed by Nietzsche (and of Nietzsche himself, though one would have to investigate whether she read him). Woolf’s modernist, stream-of-consciousness narrative is also intriguing to consider with Pascal and Nietzsche’s aphoristic style. Pairing this text with Emily Dickinson and/or T. S. Eliot may also be fruitful for similar reasons. Finally, Hobbes is a great author to link with Nietzsche, because Hobbes is certainly all about the human, all-too-human, and living for this life, and he anticipates what will be a great turn to power in Nietzsche’s own thought – and yet Hobbes is also the beginning of everything that Nietzsche will come to loathe in liberal-democratic modernity.
Another good text to consider is the Use and Advantage of History for Life, which offers students a chance to think about history differently and more deeply than they are used to doing. Its distinction among “antiquarian,” “monumental,” and “critical” history is the kind of simple idea with great explanatory power that our students appreciate as a springboard to further thought. The essay is also about the purpose of education, and no subject could be more timely, or untimely, in the university today. Finally, it is worth considering that the very fact we self-identify as “moderns” (if we do so) means we are defining ourselves in relation to history. Is that a good thing?
The translation by Preuss for Hackett is cheap and good enough (1980). An ACS syllabus could include the Use and Advantage of History for Life with many other 19th or 20th-century texts: essays on history (for example, from Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present, or Virginia Woolf’s “On Not Knowing Greek”), novels or stories that are about time, memory, or the weight of the past (Ellison’s Invisible Man, Joyce’s Dubliners), and other texts that use, abuse, or invoke history in various ways (consider Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” or Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk). Those are, of course, a small sample of pairings that could be made.