In his final chapter of How to be a Conservative, which I blogged about last week, Roger Scruton quotes Matthew Arnold’s famous poem “Dover Beach”, written in 1867 as a lament for the loss of faith he saw all around him. Describing the “very English melancholy” of the poem, Scruton contrasts it with what the German philosopher Nietzsche was to write 20 years later in Human All Too Human, commenting that Nietzsche recognised “the enormous moral trauma that our civilization must undergo, as the Christian faith recedes.”
Contrasting the two writers, Scruton writes that Arnold’s loss of faith occurred in a world in which “all the outer trappings of a religious community remain in place”, whereas Nietzsche’s loss is “an absolute loss” in which he foresees “a new world, in which human institutions will no longer be shored up by pious habits and holy doctrines, but rebuilt from the raw, untempered fabric of the will to power.” I suspect his is the more accurate diagnosis of the world we now live in.
As well as being prophetic, Nietzsche is a hypnotic writer of fierce and brilliant paradoxes. All this is documented by Patrick West in his stimulating and challenging book: Get Over Yourselves: Nietzsche for Our Times. West is animated by two passions: a love for the philosopher’s writings and contempt for modern cultural sensibilities which he sees as weak, fearful and narcissistic. The cure for the snowflake generation is, he suggests bracingly, to understand what the German writer prescribes in order to become a superior (“ubermensch”) human being.
Instead of complaining about adversity and hardship, Nietzsche “taught us to embrace [them] in order to overcome them.” For those demanding “safe spaces”, fearful of criticism and opposition, he advises us to “live dangerously”. Stop chasing happiness; it isn’t the norm: “Everyone has problems.” West advises, in the spirit of his mentor, “Avoid becoming resentful, envious or self-pitying. Life is struggle. Become your own master. Get over yourself.” Instead of lessons in happiness, perhaps students should be taught Nietzsche’s counter-cultural and incendiary thoughts?
West’s book is a lively introduction to someone whose writings, especially his notion of the “will to power”, have been so fatally misunderstood by a later German generation. He can hardly be blamed for the Nazis’ toxic distortion of his ideas. As West points out, Nietzsche was never a proto-Nazi: “He loathed nationalism, militarism, anti-Semitism and group-think.” His sister and her husband, a rabid anti-Semite, put together the notes that became The Will to Power after Nietzsche’s death.
Despite his enthusiasm for his subject, West is not overawed by him. He includes several humorous asides, such as “Nietzsche had much in common with Karl Marx – nationality, money problems, a duelling scar, imposing facial hair, disciples who understood the master very badly indeed…”
Shot through Get Over Yourself is Nietzsche’s loathing of Christianity. My criticism of the book in this respect is that West doesn’t place this hatred sufficiently within the context of Nietzsche’s upbringing within a stifling, narrow-minded, Prussian Lutheranism. He saw what Matthew Arnold also observed: the hypocrisy of outwardly respectable Christian habits, but bereft of the person of Christ. Essentially he inveighed against the late 19th century’s corruption of Christianity.
Nietzsche experienced a total and incurable mental collapse on January 3, 1889 while living in Turin. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati was born in the same city in 1901 – the year after Nietzsche’s death. I reflect in a counter-factual way what might have happened if the brilliant, tragic, atheist philosopher had lived on and met this young man, with all his vibrant holiness and exuberant love of life. West reminds us that Nietzsche had wanted people to live “with courage and sincerity”. Frassati lived this ideal, combining it with Christian love. Therein is the true “Ubermensch”.