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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil (Chapter 4 – Apophthegms and Interludes)

There are lots of folk sayings and proverbs that everyone knows by heart. You don’t even have to finish the sentence for most people to get it: “A stitch in time…/ You can lead a horse to water…/ Look before you…/ Early to bed…” These nuggets of folk wisdom are deeply ingrained into our consciousness. Whether we follow them or not is another matter. In the fourth chapter of Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche throws in some of his own nuggets of wisdom. These are translated as apophthegms. An apophthegm is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a short, pithy, and instructive saying or formulation.” Why are these particular sayings here, in this book, and at this particular point in the story? It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s just intended to be an “Interlude” or a short break from the heavy reading of the first three chapters. Maybe there’s some hidden meaning. Maybe there isn’t. In any case these apophthegms follow three chapters that deal with three closely related but separate topics.

The first topic is “The Prejudices of Philosophers.” Aristotle once said that there’s some knowledge that we should seek for its own sake and not for anything useful we can gain from studying it. Nietzsche says: “#64. ‘Knowledge for its own sake’—that is the last snare laid by morality: we are thereby completely entangled in morals once more.” Huh? Maybe Nietzsche doesn’t really want to explain things clearly. We have to think harder if we’re not given a clear answer. But even when his words are clear his message is still confusing; like this one: “#134. From the senses originate all trustworthiness, all good conscience, all evidence of truth.” Socrates thought many things were real that we can’t see or touch: truth, justice and love, for example. Even though we can’t see them we understand them better by talking about them with other seekers. You might think that Nietzsche believes in the Socratic method as a way of getting at the truth of a thing. But Nietzsche believes that “#107. A sign of strong character, when once the resolution has been taken, to shut the ear even to the best counter-arguments. Occasionally, therefore, a will to stupidity.” Then why study philosophy? Why talk at all?

In chapter two Nietzsche picks up the topic of “The Free Spirit.” Nietzsche admits that “It is difficult to be understood…” So does he try to be as clear as possible? Of course not. Then he wouldn’t be Nietzsche. Instead he says “I do everything to be difficultly understood.” Here’s an example: “#87. FETTERED HEART, FREE SPIRIT—When one firmly fetters one’s heart and keeps it prisoner, one can allow one’s spirit many liberties: I said this once before but people do not believe it when I say so, unless they know it already.” So let me get this straight – if my heart’s held prisoner my spirit can roam free? This is obscure. Here’s another obscure example: “#146. He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” Nietzsche is not easy to read.

Finally in chapter three Nietzsche writes about “The Religious Mood.” Some of these apophthegms apply to religion. In #65A for example, Nietzsche says “We are most dishonorable towards our God: he is not PERMITTED to sin.” This seems like a logical dead end to me. Witty, but going nowhere. Some of Nietzsche’s sayings may deserve deeper consideration: “#129. The devil has the most extensive perspectives for God; on that account he keeps so far away from him:— the devil, in effect, as the oldest friend of knowledge.” This is worth thinking about. Or this one: “#152. ‘Where there is the tree of knowledge, there is always Paradise": so say the most ancient and the most modern serpents.” Is Nietzsche wise or just another serpent?


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