Simply Nietzsche, by Peter Kail (Simply Charly), $9.99/£7.79
Reviewed by Maudemarie Clark and Andrew Winer
To members of the general reading public, Nietzsche is one of the most appealing of philosophers. He is almost certainly the greatest writer among them, in part because he does not write like a philosopher. His prose is vivid, concrete, even dazzling, whereas philosophers tend to write abstractly and dully, often with the aid of a highly technical vocabulary – not satisfied, Nietzsche tells us, until they have taken the life out of their subject and turned it into a concept-mummy. In fact, Nietzsche’s work can appear rife with more insults than reasoned arguments (those hallmarks of philosophy), earning him the love of the young and philosophically undereducated, and the distrust of professional philosophers whom he rubs the wrong way. Interestingly, both groups are drawn to interpretations of Nietzsche’s ideas that leave him looking like an undisciplined thinker.
And so it is somewhat unsurprising that we haven’t seen a book written by a competent philosopher that is a genuine introduction to Nietzsche’s ideas. Happily, this is what we now have in Peter Kail’s Simply Nietzsche, which, though perhaps not a perfect introduction, pulls off the nearly impossible trick of offering a lucid and concise account of Nietzsche’s philosophy that is suitable for both students and the general reader with no previous exposure to this important philosopher. Just as important, such readers will find in Kail’s book an accessible picture of Nietzsche’s thinking as it has come to be seen over the past thirty years in the work of Anglo-American interpreters who, with philosophical acumen and textual sensitivity, have replaced the Nietzsche of big, crazy, sensationalist ideas (that there is no truth, that science is “life-negating” and oppressive, that life and even reality itself is will to power) with an account of Nietzsche as a naturalistic and disciplined thinker. A Nietzsche who belongs in the company not only of those he fought – namely, Plato and Kant – but also those with closer affinities like Hume, the great Scottish philosopher, about whom Kail has written previously with admirable authority.
Like Hume, this naturalistic Nietzsche is fully committed to science, and to constructing a picture of human beings inspired by it, meaning, Kail tells us, that “human beings are no different in kind from the rest of the natural world – we are animals, grand and sophisticated, but animals nevertheless.” Nietzsche’s naturalism aims to replace the “traditional picture” of our “timeless God-made nature” with “a person [who] is nothing but a collection of drives,” and to explain features of human life that would suggest we do differ in kind from other animals – things such as religion, art, philosophy, and morality – in ways that suggest we do not. Kail does a good job of introducing readers to Nietzsche’s naturalistic account of these features, and to answering obvious objections. For instance, it seems that Nietzsche can describe all of human behaviour in terms of drives only by committing the “homuncular fallacy,” making biological drives into “little persons” able to know, prefer, value, and compete. Kail answers this accusation by explaining that although Nietzsche does say that drives do all these things, “such language needn’t be taken to mean that drives are conscious agents or human-like creatures”: to say “that trees grow tall because they want to reach the light,” Kail writes by way of illustrating this point, is simply to provide “shorthand for a particular causal tendency that natural selection has favoured, and which contributes to the flourishing of trees.” It is in this same spirit that we may speak of drives as doing things that only persons can do, such as perceiving and valuing: we are caused to perceive, value, and feel in ways that nature has selected to further the aims of our drives.
Although Kail’s book provides an admirably clear account of the naturalistic side of Nietzsche’s philosophy, we found it less helpful when it comes to the normative side. The naturalistic side aims to give a truthful description of human nature. But, as Kail tells us, “the aim is not truth for its own sake,” but to find a way to “affirm existence while at the same time recognising the truth regarding it.” This aim belongs to the normative side of Nietzsche’s project, the side concerned not with describing what human beings are currently like, but with telling us what we could and should be like. Kail certainly presents the rudiments of this project: Nietzsche’s claim that “God is dead” means that the Christian ascetic ideal of self-denial and self-sacrifice – and with it the whole Christian interpretation of existence – has been undermined; and since human beings need an ideal to guide the will (otherwise being in danger of “suicidal nihilism”), Nietzsche thinks we need a new ideal, a counterideal to the ascetic ideal. Yet it is difficult to get a clear picture of Nietzsche’s thinking regarding this new ideal from Kail’s book.
Kail rightly interprets Nietzsche’s question concerning eternal recurrence – how would you react if a demon told you that you would repeat eternally the exact same life you are now living? – as a test of whether we can “affirm – ‘say yes’ to – life as a whole.” One passes this test by responding positively to the demon, a response that Nietzsche encourages, according to Kail. Given that the ascetic ideal, as Nietzsche presents it, says “no” to life and demands self-denial on that basis, one imagines where Kail is going with all this: the affirmation of life seems the obvious candidate for Nietzsche’s counterideal.
But, strangely, that isn’t where Kail goes: he instead locates the counterideal in the words of Nietzsche’s fictional character, Zarathustra, who preaches that “man must be overcome” and replaced by the Overman. Kail sees the Overman as an individual with “a single dominant drive that can channel all one’s other drives in a single direction.” But how could this be the “new meaning for human existence”? Kail answers that the death of God leads inexorably to the “last man,” who seeks only “happiness” in the sense of comfort, thus reducing humanity to “a herd of docile animals.” The Overman provides an alternative: the ability to integrate one’s psyche in terms of a dominant drive that brings with it the willingness to welcome suffering, since only dissatisfaction with the way things are could motivate such a project of integration. But then it’s difficult to see why a psyche organised in terms of the dominant drive of making money or seeking revenge – against Jews, say, or women or the rich – would not embody Nietzsche’s counterideal. Nor is it easy to see why only a psyche integrated in terms of one dominant drive can avoid the last man’s addiction to comfort. Why wouldn’t cooperation, a partnership among the drives, work equally well, as one might think Nietzsche himself achieved in a philosophy that integrates both truth and art?
In any case, the affirmation of life seems to offer a better candidate for the counterideal. For one thing, it rules out a life dominated by resentment, no matter how integrated that life is. And much more easily than with the Overman (who disappears in Nietzsche’s later works), we can see how the affirmation of life can lead to an interpretation of human existence, or at least the aspects of it that Nietzsche cares about most – the things for the sake of which he says it is “worthwhile to live on earth,” namely, “virtue, art, music, dance, reason, spirituality,” or, in another list, “art, heroism, genius, beauty, great sympathy, knowledge, the will to truth, and tragedy.” In calling the latter list “life’s forms of exuberance,” Nietzsche does two things: first, he posits these as ways in which life attains a form of existence that is no longer mainly concerned with the means of living. Second, he responds to harm done to us when these things are all interpreted in a life-denying way according to the ascetic ideal (Nietzsche’s original hero Schopenhauer did exactly this, by interpreting them as ways of turning against life) by offering an alternative, life-affirming interpretation of what he also calls “the great cultural facts of mankind.”
But this is difficult to fit into Kail’s picture of Nietzsche. We wish he’d made it clearer that the problem Nietzsche sees in the death of God is that the things that make life worth living – and that might lift people beyond complacency, vulgarity, and resentment – aren’t being revealed because there’s no replacement ideal to illuminate them. Perhaps Kail didn’t have enough room to present more of the normative side of Nietzsche as a result of taking the reader through all of his books and almost all of the ideas broached in them – a choice that seems to bury Nietzsche’s best ideas amid a lot of sequential narrative housekeeping, and that suggests to us that it’s probably best to structure an introductory text about Nietzsche around a selection of his ideas – the mature ones – rather than around the order and manner in which they were developed. Indeed we’ve modelled that preference in this review.