But is Nietzsche really to blame? And was he really a relativist? I would say that he isn’t and he wasn’t. I believe that it’s time that the great man and free-thinker par excellence was reclaimed by the school of the Enlightenment.
Sigh. Karl Jaspers once said that a reader could not be in a position to decide what Nietzsche meant by any particular assertion until finding a different passage in his writings that contradicts it. Suffice it to say, one of the things that makes Nietzsche still so rewarding to read is the fact that his writing, in addition to being stylistically superior, is so suggestive of different interpretations — and yes, he frequently does contradict himself. As my friend Arthur said, “the problem is that there is no Nietzsche; there are only Nietzsches.” For every passage that seems to glorify cruelty and conflict, you can find a beautiful example like this one preaching a humble life of self-renunciation. For all his quoteworthy assaults upon Christianity and slave morality, there are examples like this one, where he asserts that “It goes without saying that I do not deny — unless I am a fool — that many actions called immoral ought to be avoided and resisted, or that many called moral ought to be done and encouraged — but I think the one should be encouraged and the other avoided for other reasons than hitherto.” What are we to make of all this? I prefer to take him at his word — in this instance, at least — when he says, repeatedly, that he is philosophically opposed to the very idea of trying to construct an internally consistent system of thought. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Nietzsche ever read Walt Whitman, but the oft-quoted line from “Song of Myself” about contradictions and multitudes would almost certainly have raised a smile beneath Nietzsche’s prominent mustache, and he would have been proud to stand beside Whitman in the philosophical nude, their non-sequiturs dangling in the breeze, scandalizing those prim and proper thinkers who preferred to tightly button up their several layers of systematic theorizing.
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of people who still insist on trying to extract one of the many themes he wrote about and hold it up as the keystone of his thought. Here, we have some bien-pensant grad student doing her best to amputate whichever aspects of Nietzsche’s thought won’t fit on the Procrustean bed of political conservatism she’s determined to fit him upon; here, we have the case of Nicholas Carr, who ridiculously attempts to use Nietzsche’s fondness for aphoristic writing as evidence confirming Carr’s own ideas about technological determinism. You name the cause, and there’s probably someone out there right now mining Nietzsche’s books for selective quotations in service to it. It’s true, some of Nietzsche’s work did flirt with Enlightenment themes. You can read a very good book about that period of his career here. But to take that “middle period” as the skeleton key which unlocks all the mysteries of his varied experiments in perspectivism is to make him appear more shallow and you appear more foolish. I’ll bet you a large sum of imaginary money that West’s forthcoming book about Nietzsche concludes that he was an individualist libertarian freethinker, just like the writers and readers of Spiked magazine, coincidentally enough.