First, Nietzsche is a dazzlingly brilliant writer. In the canon of Western philosophy, only Plato is in the same league. Searing clarity, beautiful metaphors, humour, intimacy, passion: he has at his command an astonishing range of voices and tropes through which to express his ideas. Second, these ideas are unfailingly interesting. Some, no doubt, are familiar notions repackaged. Some are undoubtedly wrongheaded. But Nietzsche plies his trade self-consciously after the fashion of the Greek and Roman philosophers he knew so well. He isn’t concerned with making modest contributions to scholarly debates among academics. Rather, he goes for long walks in the mountains, thinks very hard about things, and then writes down his thoughts. Hence his remarkable originality. Third, what he thinks about, more than anything else, is life itself–how human beings live, how we think, feel, and interact, what we do with our lives, and what gives our lives value. Consequently, his works engage a much wider audience than anything likely to be produced by academics, as he writes about topics of universal interest.
Over the years, I’ve become increasingly critical of Nietzsche. His extreme elitism, which I suspect is especially appealing to arrogant young men, now seems callous. His obsession with “rank” as he analyses, compares, and evaluates the moral, spiritual, and aesthetic quality of individuals and cultures–now seems unhealthy. His political opinions are essentially pre-modern. His individualism is extreme. I’ve even grown impatient with his over-reliance on metaphor. His gift for communicating ideas with literary panache is remarkable; but quite often one is left holding an entertaining thought that defies conversion into something that can be evaluated. What is one to make, for instance, of the claim that the notion of free will was invented in order to make the spectacle of human lives more interesting to the gods?
For all that, Nietzsche remains my “desert island philosopher”–the one whose works I would choose to take with me, ahead of all others, if exiled to a desert island. Why? Because he is just so damn interesting and such a pleasure to read!
This is close to my own view on Nietzsche, though I’m not so bothered by his “pre-modern” opinions, and I appreciate his poetic flights precisely because they can’t be converted into the sorts of logical propositions that academic philosophers prefer. I have to say, though, as I get older, I’m increasingly impatient with the “for or against?” attitude one is expected to express toward “controversial” writers and thinkers, as if anyone should care how you, I, and Joe Hot Take feel about them. For every truly interesting voice, there are ten thousand others providing nothing but irrelevant commentary. Lesser minds crowd into the nimbus of illumination thrown off by a rare thinker and seek to turn it into a personal spotlight. Last week I read John Kaag’s Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are — writing about hiking? Writing about Nietzsche? Writing about both together? Like peanut butter and chocolate, how can this wonderful combination disappoint? Somehow, though, it did. Thank goodness it was only a library book and I didn’t have to pay for it.