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Nietzsche: the world’s most misunderstood philosopher?

Nietzsche is so popular that Thus Spake Zarathustra is now a graphic novel in France (Getty)

Nietzsche was mild, timid and would have loathed Nazism, says Allan Massie

I Am Dynamite: A Life of Nietzsche
By Sue Prideaux,
Faber, 444pp, £25/$30

Nietzsche is alive as most philosophers aren’t. This is partly because – in one sense – he wasn’t a philosopher at all, or at least not what we commonly understand as a philosopher. He wrote no coherent work, developed no system, advanced no argument. Instead, he threw off sparks: brilliant and disturbing observations. For years, I tried reading Thus Spake Zarathustra, but I never read it through, finding much windy nonsense; much too that was enlightening, alarming, exhilarating. I guess many have had the same experience.

Nietzsche is a master of the aphorism – more exactly, he became a master of it for the best of reasons: his poor health and wretched eyesight made sustained literary composition difficult, eventually well-nigh impossible. His books are quarries from which everyone extracts what seems valuable. Observations are of his time and ours: for instance, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” Welcome to the age of Twitter, Facebook and fake news.

At the heart of his writing is the assertion that readers of this magazine must surely reject: “God is dead” – to which he adds that we must find a way to survive that death. For devout Christians this is nonsense. Yet even the most devout must be aware that many gods have died before our God. In an essay, HL Mencken, a Nietzschean known as “the Sage of Baltimore”, gives a list of several columns long of gods who were once the objects of worship and sacrifice but who have now been discarded, thrown on the rubbish heaps of lost cultures and vanished civilisations.

Who now, one may ask, tends the once-sacred shrines of Baal and Ashtoreth, Apollo and Artemis? Moreover, our Christian God is not what he was. God is now Love, the vengeful terror of Jehovah set aside. No Holy Father will now preach a crusade against heretics, as Innocent III inspired the slaughter of the Albigensians.

All philosophers are misunderstood, Nietzsche more than most. This is because after his descent into madness his work and reputation fell into the hands of his sister Elizabeth, a racist and proto-Nazi. In her way she loved her brother, but also saw her control of his work as a means to advance her own ideas. So Nietzsche, who abominated German nationalism and thought anti-Semitism disgusting, was annexed and his writings manipulated to make him appear a herald of National Socialism. This was a sad fate for the man who had written: “Mistrust all in whom the drive to punish is strong! In their faces the hangman and the bloodhound are visible.”

There is much to disturb us in Nietzsche’s writings: the ideas of the Übermensch (often translated as “Superman”) and “slave morality”, for instance. Just what did he means by these words? At the most generous one might say that the Übermensch thinks for himself and is therefore both free and superior to others, while victims of slave morality don’t and aren’t. Chesterton, accepting the common interpretation of the Übermensch, remarked that it was a mistake to suppose that Shakespeare hadn’t thought of the Übermensch; he just didn’t think much of him, and gave his ideas to Richard III, a half-crazy tyrant on the verge of defeat. This was clever, but not quite fair.

“I am dynamite,” said Nietzsche, by which he meant he was a disturber of the peace – the peace that is called complacency. He thought of himself as a liberator.

Like many who speak or write violently and express strong opinions, the man himself, as revealed by Prideaux in this admirable and sympathetic biography, was mild, affectionate and even timid in personal relations. He made friends easily and the closest of them seem to have felt protective towards him. Certainly he was in need of such protection. Though he’d walk for hours in his beloved Alps, his health was wretched from at least adolescence.

As everyone knows, he eventually became hopelessly insane. The story of his collapse in Turin, when he found a coachman flogging an old horse and dissolved in tears with his arms round the poor beast, may, Prideaux suggests, be apocryphal. Nevertheless, it is one of these stories which has the ring of se non è vero, è ben trovato.

She also questions the commonly accepted diagnosis that the cause of his insanity was tertiary syphilis. There is no evidence for this, and the most probable cause was a brain tumour. Be that as it may, the story of his dark years is painful to read. He was certainly one for whom death came as a merciful release.

Prideaux expresses righteous indignation at the perversion of his thought and the deceitful editing of his work by his ghastly sister, who assumed complete control of his archive. Her unscrupulousness and dishonesty had already been evident in her account of the German nationalist colony she and her anti-Semitic husband had established in Bolivia. The kindest thing one can say about her is that she misunderstood her brother’s work and presented it as she thought it truly was. But of course she did great damage to his reputation.

It is one of the many merits of this enthralling biography that it restores the balance and encourages the reader to recognise Nietzsche’s essential goodness.