Of the many books I read last summer, by far the best – or at least the one I enjoyed the most and learnt from – was I Am Dynamite by Sue Prideaux. The book is a biography of the brilliant but tormented German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche has long-attracted commentary and controversy. First a friend, and then an enemy of the composer Richard Wagner, Nietzsche’s influence on the world of ideas has been profound.
His ideas include the notion of eternal recurrence (the idea that we live the same life over and over again – explaining the phenomenon of déjà vu as something we recognise has already happened before), and the notion that our impulses are governed by and should balance the Apollonian or rational part of our minds with the Dionysian or the wilder appetites of our bodies.
It was Nietzsche, of course, who announced the ‘death of God’, prompting the famous ironic piece of graffiti: ‘God is dead – Nietzsche; Nietzsche is dead – God’. It was this notion that yielded perhaps his most influential idea about the ‘Genealogy of Morals’.
Nietzsche argued that, if there is no God, then no moral system can possess any divine authority. In fact, morality – on which laws tend to be based – must therefore be human and not divine in origin. As such they can often be arbitrary, subject to local customs, and will tend to serve the vested interests of those in power.
Over time, morality hardens into institutional laws and traditions. Genealogy refers to a family tree, and Nietzsche argued that we could trace back the origins of these customs in the same way we might trace back our ancestors.
What we discover when we do this is that the genealogy of morals and laws are subject to the chance and random decisions made by those in positions of authority long ago.
As human beings, Nietzsche argued, we should seek to break free of the tyranny of old traditions and liberate ourselves from the limited thinking and ethical codes imposed by religious thinking in particular.
Sue Prideaux’s biography is exceptionally well written. Nietzsche’s relationship with Lou Andreas-Salomé (lover of the poet Rilke and consort of Sigmund Freud), his falling out with Wagner, and the famous instant where the philosopher was overtaken by madness in Turin, after seeing a horse beaten on the street, are all vividly described.
The book is witty – disclosing for instance how Wagner would send the young Nietzsche on errands to buy silk underwear, much to the consternation of the shy philosopher!
It also makes clear that the appropriation of Nietzsche by the Nazis to support their notion of an Übermensch (superman), was largely due to his sister, Elizabeth.
Nietzsche’s own idea of a post-religious ‘superman’ able to break free of the limits of Christian thinking was cruelly distorted. Nietzsche was never anti-Semitic. In fact, it seems he was always international in outlook and personally kind and compassionate.
I have been reading Nietzsche’s strange, sometimes mad, and often brilliant writings since I was 18. He is rarely definitive, always questioning things. His belief in freedom of thought means that he wants – and encourages – people to come to their own conclusions. This can make his work sometimes baffling, but ceaselessly provocative and engaging.
In terms of style, Nietzsche tends – much more than other philosophers – towards the short fragment and the aphorism. An aphorism is a concise, distilled statement outlining a general truth.
Prideaux reveals that this form of expression was forced on Nietzsche by his terrible eyesight and blinding headaches. He could only articulate his ideas in short bursts, and so this led to his signature, fragmentary style.
Here are my seven favourite aphorisms from Nietzsche’s work:
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he does not become a monster himself.
My formula for human greatness: amor fati, love your fate.
Become what you are.
He who has a why in life can tolerate almost any how.
There are no facts, only interpretations.
Having the courage of one’s convictions is a virtue. Having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions is a greater virtue.
You repay a teacher badly by becoming merely a student.
Perhaps the last three are most relevant in an educational context. I like the idea that there are only interpretations of the world rather than hard facts. This seems to me to be a principle of free and open thinking, though some might see it as the beginning of a dangerous relativism.
I love the idea of being challenged and being willing to conduct a proper debate and conversation about what one believes in and why. It’s the kind of conversation that I feel has been missing over Brexit and Covid, where people have largely taken up entrenched ideological positions, unwilling to listen to the other side.
And I like the idea that students should not merely follow a teacher but be inspired to pursue their own original ideas and thoughts.
If students grow to have the confidence in their own ability to interpret the world, and want actively to continue being challenged, and to pursue learning throughout their lives, then an education will have achieved its goal, leaving Nietzsche proud.
Principal & CEO