Walter Kaufmann seems to have known Nietzsche probably better than Nietzsche knew himself. Having read nearly all of Nietzsche’s books, I still found Kaufmann’s books on Nietzsche extraordinarily insightful and believe that anyone would be hard pressed to find a more interesting and knowledgeable biographer of this historical phenomenon.
Although Nietzsche certainly had his faults, it would be difficult to find a more brilliant and erudite figure in history with the possible exception (but far less interesting) of Oswald Spengler. Nietzsche truly had a massive intelligence and an incredible command of cultures, languages, origins of language and history. It always amazed me how one human could have been so gifted. Yet, many of his pronouncements did not rest completely on solid ground such as his views that women were inferior to men and were born to “serve” and “obey” rather than lead. He would have had a difficult time today in Europe trying to get any dates with women, no doubt.
Nietzsche, the great philologist of the 19th Century, wrote many great treatises including On the Geneology of Morals, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, The Antichrist, The Will to Power, The Gay Science, Ecce Homo, Human, All Too Human, and The Birth of Tragedy. The latter is the best analysis of the nature of tragedy that I have read and, in my opinion, superior to Aristotle’s theory of tragedy but of course Nietzsche had the benefit of many more centuries of human development including the tremendous advances of the Enlightenment.
Prior to Nietzsche, I had read dozens of the great philosophers – classical and modern – but I really never felt the need nor the desire to read any more philosophy after him. Kaufman was invaluable to me in understanding Nietzsche and I strongly recommend that students, especially, have one of the Kaufmann books on Nietzsche handy while reading any of Nietzsche’s work.
Caution: Nietzsche was, in my opinion, the great realist and cynic of the modern world. Be prepared to lose much of your cherished beliefs if you undertake a serious study here. Not really recommended for those who prefer to enjoy life rather than ‘think too much.’
It’s unfortunate that many people today associate Nietzsche with Nazism – this is totally erroneous and Nietzsche would have had total contempt for the Nazis regimes that existed all over Europe. He had large respect for the Jews, their culture, their tenacious will and genius at survival in a hostile world as well as for their cohesiveness down through centuries of hatred that fueled the massacres, pogroms and exterminations. He would have been aghast at the slaughter of the Jews during the Nazis era. He was not an anti-Semite but quite the opposite.
The Nazis used his theory of the superman to cast him as a fascist like themselves and, although there are similarities, Nietzsche would have had been horrified to have seen his name connected with such a twisted ideology. The superman as Nietzsche conceived him, would be a highly-evolved human – a rarity among humans, so rare that his existence would be constantly in danger. But it would be a superman that might guide humanity into a bright and great future. His tremendous ‘will to power’ would help him (Nietzsche would not have seen this being as female) to forcibly overcome the “herd” and the instinct of the “many” or the “herd instinct” toward mediocrity rather than toward greatness. Hitler or Mussulini would not have qualified. Despite their ability to shake up the world and cause vast slaughter, Nietzsche would have seen them as contemptible mean criminals who stood not for life as the superman would but for destruction even though they tried to create – in Hitler case it would have been the 1000-year Reich while Mussolini tried, pathetically, to recreate the Roman Empire.
More than anything, I believe that Nietzsche wanted to see the human race rise far beyond the mediocrity that he saw everywhere in modern life. He seemed to have longed for the great cultures of old – those of ancient Greece and Rome but many others. He saw Christianity as the catalyst for the demise of human greatness and viewed it as a weak religion that encouraged mediocrity – a religion of the weak and the poor.
In contrast he saw Jesus as a strong leader but believed the apostles and subsequently the Catholic Church and its offshoots had little to do with Jesus whom he said was the first and only Christian. For Nietzsche, I believe, the anti-Christ was the historical force – atheism as it pertained to the christian interpretation of “God”- that opposed the church. It wasn’t opposition to Jesus, according to Nietzsche, as the church already had been in opposition to him in many ways and to such a degree that the two were irreconcilable. Christians would no doubt disagree. This is not to say that Nietzsche did not believe in a god – he believed in the majesty and power of nature but that man ultimately stood alone, unguided by, and unknown to any god. He believed that “God” did not create man – just the opposite, that man created “God.”
For me, Kaufmann’s books on Nietzsche are essential guides for anyone wanting to study Nietzsche although these days Nietzsche has become far more popular among intellectuals and, as a result, there is a wealth of commentary out there about this central figure in history.