Nietzsche the Afflicted: On Ritchie Robertson’s “Friedrich Nietzsche”
By Kim SolinSeptember 14, 2023
Friedrich Nietzsche by Ritchie Robertson
Finding one’s bearings in the Nietzschean vortex is no easy task, and it does not help matters that the number of interpretations of his work is legion. Placing Nietzsche’s bibliography within his biography is perhaps one of the more promising ways to approach him. For it is, I believe, difficult to make sense of his writings without considering the specific conditions under which he wrote them. This is exactly the approach of the Reaktion Books series Critical Lives, to which Ritchie Robertson has now contributed a volume on Nietzsche.
The son of an affectionate Lutheran pastor, Nietzsche was a peculiar child. Always rule-abiding, he would rather walk home in the rain than break the school rule against running. He spoke to others “von oben” (“from above”), and would do so his whole life. Nietzsche was only four years old when his father died. Some years after this, an attempt at having him attend a local primary school with a more diverse community failed; his manners were simply too odd, and he could not connect with the working-class boys. He transferred, and subsequently became a prodigy student at an elite boarding school called Pforta. Despite suffering from rheumatism and headaches, by his late teens he had gained a command of classical languages and literature that most of us could only dream of.
He did not fare any worse at the university. Described by his professor F. W. Ritschl as “the leader of all the young philologists here in Leipzig,” Nietzsche was swiftly awarded an honorary doctorate, which allowed him to be appointed professor of philology in Basel at the age of 24. The young age has usually been taken as an early recognition of Nietzsche’s genius, but from Robertson’s Friedrich Nietzsche we learn that most professors in Basel at the time were appointed at around that age. Having read Schopenhauer and other contemporary philosophers, however, Nietzsche was growing tired of philology and moving towards philosophy. He even applied for a professorship in philosophy in Basel, but this time the doors did not open as easily as before. For a thinker as serious as Nietzsche was, this must have been frustrating. Granted, from a strictly academic perspective, his knowledge of philosophy was rather thin, but his work from this time, including his debut book The Birth of Tragedy (1872), was highly philosophical in nature, even as it met with harsh criticism from philologists.
With accelerating bad health, Nietzsche retired from his professorship at the age of 34; the university would pay him a lifelong pension. Bad health was also the main reason why Nietzsche switched to writing fragments and aphorisms instead of longer treatises: his poor eyesight would not allow him to focus on longer texts. (Only his last book, 1888’s The Antichrist, was to be a monograph.) In 1881, he had a horrifying mystical experience that gave rise to the idea of the Eternal Recurrence, presented in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–85). Paradoxically, the author who wrote these last raging texts, the philosopher with the hammer, was personally exceedingly kind and chivalrous. He even pleaded with an older friend not to read his books, as they would only make her sad.
In 1889, isolated in Turin, Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalized for the rest of his life as a result. He was cared for first by his mother and then, after her death, by his sister, until his death in 1900. The cause is likely to have been a brain tumor, we learn from Robertson, not syphilis as previously assumed. Nietzsche’s misfortunes continued after his death: posthumously, his sister edited the Will to Power from his notes, publishing an edition in 1901 that would profoundly distort his ideas and affect the reception of his works negatively for decades to come.
The mystical experience was central to Nietzsche’s life, and with it the fundamental idea of the “eternal recurrence.” But how should we understand this notion? Robertson suggests that it is a moral test: “If one can accept with joy the prospect of reliving one’s life repeatedly, one has shown one’s ability to affirm life.” And a large part of Nietzsche’s philosophy was indeed about learning to affirm life, about dancing and laughter. As a cosmological theory, Robertson notes, the eternal recurrence is hopelessly outdated. It seems to me that what happened to Nietzsche is best described by Kierkegaard’s concept “Øieblikket” (i.e., the moment or, literally, “the glance of the eye”), a rare instant in which the temporal and the eternal meet, disclosing our place in both spheres and dissolving the boundary between them. Often a transformative experience, Øieblikket has left many baffled and in want of apt descriptions.
Simone Weil understood that Nietzsche was an afflicted person, not least physically, which for her was a precondition for genuine affliction. In Awaiting God (1951), she writes that affliction means that love and the transcendent are absent:
What is terrible is that in this darkness when there is nothing to love, if the soul ceases to love, the absence of God becomes definitive. The soul must continue to love in the void—or at least want to love—be it even with an infinitesimal part of itself. Then one day God comes to manifest himself to them and reveals the beauty of the world, like God did in the case of Job. But if the soul ceases to love, it falls into something here below that is nearly equivalent to hell.
Nietzsche compensates the affliction with arrogance. He deserves “pity but not esteem and still less admiration,” Weil writes to her brother.
Yet I still wonder: was it not the beauty of the world, the eternal recurrence, that was revealed to this afflicted man at that scenic location with the rock beside Lake Silvaplana in August 1881?
For many years, Nietzsche was an avid reader of natural science. This aspect of his thought is no easier to understand than the rest. Robertson’s observation that, in his critique of metaphysics, Nietzsche formulates “the now recognized principle of scientific and scholarly research, that a conclusion can be established beyond reasonable doubt, but never with absolute certainty, and is always in principle open to correction” seems an oversimplification. The tension that arises when we try to formulate Nietzsche’s ideas in clear-cut principles is apparent throughout Robertson’s book. Robertson is well aware of the tension, noting that, in certain analyses of Nietzsche’s philosophy, “[t]ext and interpretation have moved too far apart.” Unfortunately, he occasionally comes close to this problem himself. If it is true that Nietzsche even sounds like W. V. O. Quine at times, still the context is quite different.
Robertson is closer to the truth when he says that, with Nietzsche, “we are to be redeemed from Christianity and into nature.” Avoiding everything transcendent and remaining “true to the earth” was Nietzsche’s commandment. For this seeker after truth, science worked as a purification from superstition. “Long live physics!” It helps us rid ourselves of prejudice and lets us, as Wallace Stevens puts it, “step barefoot into reality.”
But for Nietzsche, this barefoot reality is barren and empty. “There is no transcendent meaning, no providence, no moral absolutes, no absolutes of any kind,” Robertson writes. In contrast, for Weil, the beauty of the world makes us love it. Through this love, reality in the deepest sense shows itself beyond a mere collection of facts. This is why physics, especially its mathematical formulation, is important to her. Nietzsche comes close to Weil’s view with his notion of “amor fati,” for instance when he writes in The Gay Science (1882): “I wish to learn more and more to see the necessity in things as beauty—thus I shall be one of those who make things beautiful.”
For Nietzsche, philosophy was primarily a way of life. He greatly admired the ancients and Schopenhauer, and he tried to live his own life in this demanding spirit. It therefore becomes almost comical when Robertson, on the very last page, encourages us to find the meaning of life in projects such as “sustaining a marriage, raising a family, writing a book, making a career.” With the exception of writing books, Nietzsche did none of these things. Here I am reminded of Iris Murdoch’s comment about another Oxford academic, Gilbert Ryle, that he lived in a world “in which people play cricket, cook cakes, make simple decisions, remember their childhood and go to the circus; not the world in which they commit sins, fall in love, say prayers or join the Communist Party.”
Robertson’s shortcomings as a guide to Nietzsche are also apparent in his ideas about compassion. Nietzsche, he believes, is continuing an uncompassionate philosophical tradition that stretches back to Plato. What would Robertson make of Weil’s observation that, for the true attention to the afflicted, warmth of heart is not enough? Compassionate as we must assume Robertson is, and despite his detailed discussion of Nietzsche’s ailments, he has only glimpsed the deep affliction behind the philosopher’s raging, uncompromising texts.
All this notwithstanding, Robertson is a good storyteller and an erudite scholar, and one can certainly learn many historical facts about Nietzsche and his times by reading this enjoyable book.
Kim Solin (PhD, Uppsala) is a Finnish-Swedish philosopher and essayist.
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