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Bertrand Russell on Nietzsche

Russell in 1907 (from Wikipedia)

In my last post, Part One of a two-part series on Bertrand Russell’s monumental A History of Western Philosophy, I highlighted the author’s critical views of Plato and Aristotle from the ‘Ancient Philosophy’ section of the work. Now, in Part Two, I will summarize and comment on just one chapter from the ‘Modern Philosophy’ section of this same work–the one dealing with the German-born philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. As with Plato and Aristotle, Russell is highly disapproving of the outcome of much of Nietzsche’s thought; unlike with the former two thinkers, however, Russell’s critique of Nietzsche seems like a personal ad hominem polemic against the latter. Russell does not only seek to demonstrate scientific, logical, or methodical errors or prejudices, as with many of the philosophers he discusses, but intends to completely ridicule, demolish, and discredit the entire foundation on which Nietzsche’s ideas are built. In addition to prima facie philosophical disagreement, most of the hostility of Russell (who was writing this book in the last years of WWII) comes from the fact that he sees Nietzsche as the most recent example of a European philosophical tradition that has culminated in, or at least prepared the way for, Fascism. Though he would not find Plato innocent of these same charges, it was difficult to trace such a direct line of influence from antiquity to the modern age and the war that was then in progress. This, according to Russell, could not be said about many philosophers of the modern era ever since the successors of John Locke. Here is an example of Russell’s commentary from the chapter entitled “Locke’s Influence”:

Since Rousseau and Kant, there have been two schools of liberalism, which may be distinguished as the hard-headed and the soft-hearted. The hard-headed developed, through Bentham, Ricardo, and Marx, by logical stages into Stalin; the soft-hearted, by other logical stages, through Fichte, Byron, Carlyle, and Nietzsche, into Hitler. This statement, of course, is too schematic to be quite true, but it may serve as a map and a mnemonic… A man’s ethic usually reflects his character, and benevolence leads to a desire for the general happiness. Thus the men who thought happiness the end of life tended to be the more benevolent, while those who proposed other ends were often dominated, unconsciously, by cruelty or love of power.

Russell further compares the evolution of ideas to the present day in terms of romanticism, which he opposed, and rationalism, which he supported. From the chapter entitled “Currents of Thought in the Nineteenth Century”:

This revolt (against traditional systems in thought, in politics, and in economics) had two very different forms, one romantic, the other rationalistic. The romantic revolt passes from Byron, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche to Mussolini and Hitler; the rationalistic revolt begins with the French philosophers of the Revolution, passes on, somewhat softened, to the philosophical radicals in England, then acquires a deeper form in Marx and issues in Soviet Russia.

Nietzsche in 1869 (from Wikipedia)

For me, one of the most interesting things about Russell’s views on Nietzsche, and the reason I have chosen to comment on this chapter, is the fact that it is perhaps the only place in A History of Western Philosophy in which I found myself in something less than complete substantive acquiescence with Russell. For reasons that are not entirely known to me, I think Russell’s assessment of Nietzsche was too harsh, too biased, or possibly based on an incomplete reading, interpretation, translation, or understanding.

The following series of quotes will provide a brief, but representative, synopsis of Russell’s chapter entitled “Nietzsche”, which will be followed by a few of my own thoughts on the matter:

His general outlook remained very similar to that of Wagner in the Ring; Nietzsche’s superman is very like Siegfried, except that he knows Greek. This may seem odd, but that is not my fault.

Lord Byron, Romantic rogue

In spite of Nietzsche’s criticism of the romantics, his outlook owes much to them; it is that of aristocratic anarchism, like Byron’s, and one is not surprised to find him admiring Byron. He attempts to combine two sets of values which are not easily harmonized: on the one hand he likes ruthlessness, war, and aristocratic pride; on the other hand, he loves philosophy and literature and the arts, especially music. Historically, these values coexisted in the Renaissance; Pope Julius II, fighting for Bologna and employing Michelangelo, might be taken as the sort of man whom Nietzsche would wish to see in control of governments. It is natural to compare Nietzsche with Machiavelli, in spite of important differences between the two men… Both have an ethic which aims at power and is deliberately anti-Christian, though Nietzsche is more frank in this respect. What Caesar Borgia was to Machiavelli, Napoleon was to Nietzsche: a great man defeated by petty opponents.

Nietzsche alludes habitually to ordinary human beings as the “bungled and botched,” and sees no objection to their suffering if it is necessary for the production of a great man. Thus the whole importance of the period from 1789 to 1815 is summed up in Napoleon: “The Revolution made Napoleon possible: that is its justification…”

It is necessary for higher men to make war upon the masses, and resist the democratic tendencies of the age, for in all directions mediocre people are joining hands to make themselves masters… He regards compassion as a weakness to be combated… He prophesied with a certain glee an era of great wars; one wonders whether he would have been happy if he had lived to see the fulfillment of his prophecy.

There is a great deal in Nietzsche that must be dismissed as merely megalomaniac… It is obvious that in his day-dreams he is a warrior, not a professor; all the men he admires were military. His opinion of women, like every man’s, is an objectification of his own emotion towards them, which is obviously one of fear. “Forget not thy whip”–but nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks.

He condemns Christian love because he thinks it is an outcome of fear… It does not occur to Nietzsche as possible that a man should genuinely feel universal love, obviously because he himself feels almost universal hatred and fear, which he would fain disguise as lordly indifference. His “noble” man–who is himself in day-dreams–is a being wholly devoid of sympathy, ruthless, cunning, concerned only with his own power. King Lear, on the verge of madness, says: “I will do such things–what they are yet I know not–but they shall be the terror of the earth.” This is Nietzsche’s philosophy in a nutshell.

It never occurred to Nietzsche that the lust for power, with which he endows his superman, is itself an outcome of fear. Those who do not fear their neighbours see no necessity to tyrannize over them… I will not deny that, partly as a result of his teaching, the real world has become very like his nightmare, but that does not make it any the less horrible.

We can now state Nietzsche’s ethic. I think what follows is a fair analysis of it: Victors in war, and their descendants, are usually biologically superior to the vanquished. It is therefore desirable that they should hold all the power, and should manage affairs exclusively in their own interests.

Suppose we wish–as I certainly do–to find arguments against Nietzsche’s ethics and politics, what arguments can we find?… The ethical, as opposed to the political, question is one as to sympathy. Sympathy, in the sense of being made unhappy by the sufferings of others, is to some extent natural to human beings. But the development of this feeling is very different in different people. Some find pleasure in the infliction of torture; others, like Buddha, feel that they cannot be completely happy so long as any living thing is suffering. Most people divide mankind emotionally into friends and enemies, feeling sympathy for the former, but not for the latter. An ethic such as that of Christianity or Buddhism has its emotional basis in universal sympathy; Nietzsche’s, in a complete absence of sympathy. (He frequently preaches against sympathy, and in this respect one feels that he has no difficulty in obeying his own precepts.)

For my part, I agree with Buddha as I have imagined him. But I do not know how to prove that he is right by any argument such as can be used in a mathematical or a scientific question. I dislike Nietzsche because he likes the contemplation of pain, because he erects conceit into a duty, because the men whom he most admires are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing men to die. But I think the ultimate argument against his philosophy, as against any unpleasant but internally self-consistent ethic, lies not in an appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the emotions. Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world. His followers have had their innings, but we may hope that it is coming rapidly to an end.

So what are we to make of Russell’s scathing indictment of Nietzsche? Russell has certainly made a strong and convincing case for his opinions, but one that I feel is only one possible interpretation and in one historical context. This interpretation seems too shallow and dismissive of such a complex well-spring of ideas that was Nietzsche. For example, I understand and sympathize with Russell’s rejection of the concept of the Übermensch and the Will to Power as an ‘aristocratic lust for power’. I am not so sure about the validity of Russell’s conclusion that Nietzsche’s philosophy was the result of universal hatred and fear. My reading of Nietzsche is incomplete, but it is already clear to me that he is more important and useful than Russell gives him credit for. He is one of the most original and captivating Western thinkers of modern times (or probably of any age), and the breadth of his influence already shows that his ideas cannot be pigeon-holed or dismissed so easily.

As for the historical context, Russell was writing during World War II, as an obvious opponent of Fascism and war in general. It is true that Nietzsche’s works had influenced German militarism and nationalism in both world wars, including misuse by the Nazis. This cannot necessarily be understood as a fault of Nietzsche, who was an opponent of Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, and Germany itself (he renounced his citizenship and was officially stateless for the last 31 years of his life). Hitler probably never actually read Nietzsche, and the Nazis mostly cherry-picked lines that seemed convenient to them. This is hardly a surprise in the case of such a multi-layered and open-to-interpretation thinker such as Nietzsche. Indeed, some of his earliest followers were not Fascists but left-wing anarchists and Zionists, and poets such as Yeats and Mencken, as well as virtually every ‘Continental’ philosopher of the 20th century–Heidegger, Sartre, Strauss, Camus, Derrida, Foucault, etc. It is with them in mind that I shall conclude this post.

(The above video is a spoken excerpt from Russell’s chapter on Nietzsche, followed by Martin Heidegger’s contradictory remarks on the importance of Nietzsche).

Martin Heidegger was heavily influenced by Nietzsche and wrote a 4-volume work on him. Though I am less familiar with the notoriously difficult Heidegger than I am with Nietzsche, the emphasis of the former seems to be much more on the individualistic and ontological aspects inspired by the latter. For example, Heidegger continues Nietzsche’s veneration of pre-Socratics such as Heraclitus over Parmenides and the Platonic tradition. Heraclitus believed that everything was in a state of flux, famously stating that a person cannot step twice into the same river, and therefore the focus was on the process of Becoming. Parmenides, followed by Plato, believed that everything is eternal and unchanging, with the focus on the state of Being. Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche led to his own attempt to redefine the meaning of Being itself and its consequences for human affairs. I have found here a useful synthesis and exegesis of many of Heidegger’s working notes on Nietzsche.

Existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, though opposed by Heidegger on different grounds, continued this line of thought further from its Nietzschean origins. When taken out of his political context, it is in this regard that I think Nietzsche may still be useful, contra Russell. The fact that Nietzsche helped diminish the role of metaphysics has led to questions as to the nature of our existence, which was expressed by Sartre as “existence precedes essence.” From a certain perspective, it even seems possible that Nietzsche’s philosophy has much in common with Russell’s Analytical school in that they, too, had no use for metaphysics. Their solutions to this problem differed, with Nietzsche prophesying and attempting to create a new morality “beyond good and evil”, and Russell adamantly advocating the case for logic, reason, and liberalism.

This is certainly not a closed book, and at this point I can come to no definite conclusions, except for a tentative belief that Russell’s criticism is not wholly valid, and that other uses of Nietzsche are possible. For example, here is a curious article I have found that attempts to portray Nietzsche as a proto-egalitarian. As with most thinkers, Nietzsche is often misunderstood and can quite easily be exploited or twisted into service for many ends. I will have some occasion to discuss this in the future, as, for example, in the unfortunate case of Ayn Rand. On the other hand, I believe there is still a place for a positive and empowering individualistic interpretation of Nietzsche, such as was used, I believe, by Nikos Kazantzakis (whom I discussed here). Walter Kaufman’s excellent translation and commentary (which I employ) has done much to rehabilitate Nietzsche’s post-WWII image in the Anglo-American world. I will continue to search for a common-ground between divergent modern philosophical ideas as represented by Russell and Nietzsche (which sums up, on a smaller scale, the ongoing conflict between Analytic and Continental philosophy), as I believe both provide useful tools for asking questions and finding solutions as to the nature of truth and existence in the universe and in our lives.

Nikos Kazantzakis the Greek

On this date in the year 1600, the great Italian philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for heresy at the hands of the Roman Inquisition, and his works were placed on the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (list of prohibited books). Ironically, Bruno’s imposing statue stands today at the site where he was executed in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome, a place with a busy market by day and a festive atmosphere every night. The number and names of the great writers and thinkers who have appeared on this shameful list are long and impressive (Descartes, Bacon, Milton, Voltaire, Diderot, Locke, Kepler, Galileo, Pascal, Rousseau, Hume, Kant, Hugo, Sartre, to name 14), and one of whom I write today was added to their esteemed company in 1953. The man is Nikos Kazantzakis, and the work that earned the dubious condemnation is his novel The Last Temptation of Christ. He is also known for his epic Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, as well as Zorba the Greek, Freedom and Death (aka Captain Michalis), and The Greek Passion (aka Christ Recrucified).

Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957)

Kazantzakis was born in Heraklion, Crete, in 1883, when it was still part of the moribund Ottoman Empire. He studied in Athens, followed by Paris, and traveled widely around Europe, where he became proficient in seven languages besides his native Greek. In 1957 he was one vote short of being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Albert Camus, the winner that year, later said that Kazantzakis deserved the award 100 times more than himself. Alas, Kazantzakis died the next year, and thus also joined the illustrious club of 20th century writers not awarded the Nobel Prize. Kazantzakis lived an eventful and interesting life, and died on the way from China to the North Pole at the age of 74. His tomb in Heraklion has been made into a park on top of the old Venetian walls of the city. His epitaph reads: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

Tomb of Kazantzakis in Heraklion, from my visit in January 2011

In Paris, the young Kazantzakis became a student and follower of the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Two of the main ideas of Bergson can be found throughout the works of Kazantzakis– the élan vital, or creative force, that drives men towards their own evolution, and the strong emphasis on intuition over pure reason. Despite the prevalent philosophical criticism directed towards Bergson, these ideas played a part in stimulating the great creativity and productivity of Kazantzakis, as well as the earthy and exuberant spirit that permeates his many works. Another key aspect of Kazantzakis’ oeuvre is the tendency towards assimilation and synthesis of opposing ideas into something greater or more complete. Along with Bergson, one of Kazantzakis’ main influences was Nietzsche, though, as his friend and translator Kimon Friar writes, one can find influences of “such diverse and contrary strains as Buddha, Lenin, Christ, Spinoza, Spengler, Darwin, Homer, Frazer, and Dante.” The synthesis of different ideas came from the confrontation between the Dionysian and Apollonian visions of life, which was described by Nietzsche in his The Birth of Tragedy. Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry, joy in action, ecstatic motion and inspiration, instinct, adventure, song and music and dance; Apollo, the god of peace, leisure and repose, aesthetic emotion and intellectual contemplation, logic and calmness, painting, sculpture and epic poetry.

Kazantzakis considered his Odyssey: A Modern Sequel to be his greatest work; there is a case to be made that it is one of the greatest literary works ever. It was composed over the course of seven drafts from 1924-1938, and it consists of 33,333 lines of 17-syllable verse in Modern Greek, chocked full of metaphor, simile, and obscure dialect from around the Greek archipelago. Its massive size is nearly three times longer than the original Odyssey (12,110 lines), and more than twice as long as the Iliad (15,000 lines). Like each of its ancient forebears, it consists of 24 cantos, and it opens (after a Prologue invocation to the sun) at the point in Odyssey Book 22 directly after Odysseus has slain the young suitors in his palace. “And when in his wide courtyards Odysseus had cut down the insolent youths, he hung on high his sated bow and strode to the warm bath to cleanse his bloodstained body.” So begins the English translation completed in 1958 by Kimon Friar, after four years of labor and constant consultation with the author. It remains not only the sole English translation, but apparently the only translation into any language.

Odysseus on Ithaca yearning for the sea–one of over 20 illustrations by the Greek artist Ghika. (To see a few more, click on the link, then ‘Secondary Sources’, then ‘Drawings by Chatzikyriakos-Ghikas’).

After Odysseus’ long-awaited return to his blessed isle of Ithaca, and after setting things straight in his reclaimed kingdom, it quickly becomes apparent that he is growing bored and disenchanted with his newfound family life and comparatively bucolic existence. Telemachus and Penelope in their own ways each struggle to relate to this barbaric stranger, and the mighty spirit of Odysseus longs for new adventures and the freedom he cannot live without. He therefore casts off for further travels including returning to Sparta and re-abducting Helen, taking her to Crete and abandoning her after fighting against the king there, sailing to Egypt and down the Nile, where he eventually founds a new city and a new religion after instructions from God on a mountain-top. The city is destroyed by earthquake, and last part of the epic is mostly concerned with Odysseus’ inner meditations on life and death, as he continues his journey ever south through Africa. After spreading his religion far and wide, he comes to Antarctica, where he dies upon an iceberg. Archetypal figures he encounters include Prince Motherth (Buddha), Margaro (the Courtesan), the Hermit (Faust), Captain Sole (Don Quixote), the Lord of the Tower (the Hedonist), and the black Fisher-lad (Christ). A distillation of the main idea of O: AMS is the sense of discovery and struggle for its own sake, and for the sake of freedom.

The fictional rewriting (or reinterpreting) of the Gospels and the importance of Judas Iscariot in The Last Temptation of Christ have at least two other interesting parallels, one earlier and one later: from his 1944 collection Artifices, Jorge Luis Borges‘ (another Nobel snub!) typically and metaphysically fictitious story “Three Versions of Judas” (“In order to save us, He could have chosen any of the lives that weave the confused web of history: He could have been Alexander or Pythagoras or Rurik or Jesus; he chose an abject existence: He was Judas.”); and Jose Saramago’s (1998 Nobel laureate…finally a winner!) witty and imaginative The Gospel according to Jesus Christ. The Vatican had no qualms about prohibiting Kazantzakis’ work even though he was Greek, and thus ostensibly under the ‘domain’ of the Greek Orthodox Church (which however lost no ground to the Vatican in the intolerance department by refusing to allow the burial of Kazantzakis in a cemetery, which led to his tomb being situated on the ramparts of Heraklion, with its admirable view of the wine-dark sea). The Vatican continued the controversy by denouncing Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film based on the book (there were several attacks on cinemas showing the movie in France, and the film was banned in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Turkey, Singapore, and the Philipines). The film is well-made and very close to the book. I enjoyed Willem Dafoe’s Jesus more than Harvey Keitel’s Judas (also appreciated: a rare appearance by Andre Gregory as John the Baptist).

If not TLToC, the most famous work by Kazantzakis is probably his 1946 Zorba the Greek, which was made into a 1964 movie starring Anthony Quinn. The title character is a boisterous lover of life who changes the perspective of the shy intellectual narrator (who is reading Dante’s Commedia at the beginning of the work). When I visited Crete, I found that the filming location–a small fishing village on the Akrotiri peninsula–has hardly changed. Perhaps there are less trees on the hillside where Zorba dug the mine, but there can still be found several ancient monasteries in the secluded area.

It would take too much time to discuss the topics and philosophy of Kazantzakis at greater length. A quick survey of his additional writings include at least 7 well-regarded travelogues (Spain, China, Japan, England, Greece, Russia…), some translations (Homer into Modern Greek, Dante…), 12 novels, numerous memoirs and essays (including Report to Greco), and 8 plays (including Julian the Apostate and Christopher Columbus). Kazantzakis is an example of a life fully-lived, with an unceasing creativity, intellectual curiosity, and longing for freedom. Perhaps this quote from W.B. Stanford’s The Ulysses Theme gives a pertinent description of Kazantzakis by way of his alter-ego Odysseus: “Odysseus is the man who has freed himself from everything–religions, philosophies, political systems–one who has cut away all the strings. He wants to try all the forms of life, freely beyond plans and systems, keeping the thought of death before him as a stimulant, not to make every pleasure more acrid or every ephemeral moment more sharply enjoyable in its brevity, but to whet his appetites in life, to make them more capable of embracing and of exhausting all things so that, when death finally came, it would find nothing to take from him, for it would find an entirely squandered Odysseus.”

Albert Schweitzer, Nikos Kazantzakis, and his wife Eleni in 1955.

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