Nietzsche, the closet optimist

The troubled philosopher had so much faith in 'self-fashioning'

Nietzsche once wrote: "I know my fate.... I am no man, I am dynamite." The son of a Lutheran pastor, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) identified with the anti-Christ. A firm believer in science, he spent his last decade a madman, in all likelihood the victim of syphilis. An even greater paradox: Though an ardent anti-anti-Semite and a fierce critic of German nationalism, he became a hero to the Third Reich.

The best way to know Nietzsche is to read him not as a philosopher - as one would read Locke or Kant - but as a writer. Or, read him as you would listen to good music. Be patient, listen hard and often. As Rüdiger Safranski makes clear in his new biography, for Nietzsche, music was "authentic reality."

In "Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography," translated by Shelley Frisch, Safranski allows us to read Nietzsche over his shoulder. He provides an ideal companion for understanding the man.

Nietzsche's life was full of highs and lows, and so vulnerable to sensationalism. Safranski puts those highs and lows into the context of the philosopher's thinking. Indeed, Nietzsche came to link physical suffering with mental triumph. Even before he left his teaching post, regular bouts of illness and pain caused him to fear he would die, like his father, of brain disease.

It was then, a full decade before his final troubles, that Nietzsche developed his mature aphoristic style, one of the wonders of German language. And yet Nietzsche's style is not so radical a departure from tradition. Safranski notes the irony that this great enemy of traditional morality speaks as a moralist:

"You should become master of yourself and also master of your own virtues. Previously, they were your masters, but they must be nothing more than your tools, just some tools among others. You should achieve power over your pros and cons and learn how to put them forth and hang them back in accordance with your highest aim."

This sermonic style contains, as Safranski notes, the "thou shalts" that Nietzsche opposed in their biblical form, but it is tuned "to a concert pitch" and places these "shalts" carefully into a process of self-mastery and self-empowerment. It reflects Nietzsche's integration of classical rhetoric ("pros and cons") into modern moral self-fashioning. Today, it may seem a bit self-helpy.

If one reads Nietzsche as he should be read and clearly wanted to be read, in a personal way, one can't resist the conclusion, after the 20th century at least, that Nietzsche was a bit optimistic about modern science and this new self-fashioning. Safranski's conclusion confirms this suspicion: "In a fateful way, he remained a child of his era's belief in science."

This is not a conclusion that the myriad fans of Nietzsche - he is clearly the great idol of the modern academy - will find comforting. Nietzsche's famous insight that God is dead and we have killed Him is only one of his insights into his scientific and materialist age.

Because of his life story and even more his musical style, Nietzsche is always in danger of being misunderstood, now as ever. Safranski's biography, complete with a detailed chronicle of Nietzsche's life and a fascinating epilogue, is the most useful and informative study of Nietzsche for the general reader.

• Thomas D'Evelyn is an editorial consultant in Providence, R.I.

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