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Nietzsche: The Man and His PhilosophyReview - Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy
Second edition
by R. J. Hollingdale
Cambridge University Press, 1999
Review by Daniel Came
Oct 16th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 42)

Since R.J. Hollingdale's erudite and stimulating biography of Nietzsche was first published in 1965, interest in this most controversial and influential of modern philosophers has burgeoned almost to the point of excess. In spite of the classic status of Hollingdale's work, it has long been out of print, but it is reissued here with its text reorganized, revised, and expanded in the light of the glut of new documents concerning Nietzsche's life and new interpretations of his philosophy that have emerged in the intervening years. Hollingdale has subjected the text to a careful revision in which he has furnished stylistic amendments, corrected and updated certain passages, and modified statements of supposed fact which later research has shown to be erroneous. He has eliminated the now-obsolete appendices of the original and replaced them with a postscript which surveys the developments that have occurred in the publication and understanding of Nietzsche over the last third of a century. The end result is a meticulously researched, instructive, clear-headed, and above all moving work that is lucidly written in straightforward prose and which will serve as a fine introduction to Nietzsche.

As the subtitle indicates, the book attempts to combine biographical interpretation with philosophical discussion and analysis. As such, it integrates an account of Nietzsche's works into a narrative of his existence, from his formative years as the pious son of a Lutheran pastor to his untimely descent into madness and invalidity in 1889. It follows his years as a schoolboy at the celebrated Schulpforta, his appointment as Professor of Classical Philology at Basel at the prodigiously young age of 24, and the years of his isolation, with his wanderings in France, Switzerland, and Italy and his ill-fated affair with Lou Salomé.

In its capacity as an examination of Nietzsche's philosophy, it is an introductory text and, therefore, is bound to be selective and cursory. Following the chronological progression of Nietzsche's thought, it discusses his discipleship and later rift with Wagner, the nature and extent of his indebtedness to Schopenhauer and Darwin, and his relationship with the Greeks. The oscillation from biographical to philosophical material is inevitably somewhat spasmodic. But Hollingdale considers Nietzsche's philosophy as part of his life; that his thought is a creation of his existence and should be examined against this background. I have certain misgivings concerning this stance, but it is to Hollingdale's credit that he does not indulge in fanciful psychologizing about the origin or home of aspects of Nietzsche's thought. He rejects, for instance, the view that Nietzsche's antipathy towards Christianity owes its origin to an emotional rebellion against the Lutheran tradition in which he was raised, or, as has also been suggested, that his entire philosophy is no more than a conscious antithesis to that tradition. While there is, I think, an unmistakable element of rebellion present in Nietzsche's work and his Lutheran origins in particular exerted a potent influence on him, Hollingdale is right to make light of this by emphasizing the rational foundation of Nietzsche's thought and by resolutely striving to formulate interpretations and elucidations of his philosophy on secure textual foundations. Where Hollingdale does engage in psychological hypothesizing, it is always as a means of rationalizing concrete events in Nietzsche's life or aspects of his personality rather than his philosophy, as for example, when he posits the death of the philosopher's father, Karl Ludwig Nietzsche, in 1849 as the 'decisive event' of Nietzsche's life and as the primary cause of Nietzsche's inability in later years to settle down and lead a localized existence.

The cause of Karl Ludwig's death has been hotly debated and there has been speculation that he suffered from some kind of mental illness which was inherited by Nietzsche and led, in turn, to the philosopher's own mental breakdown. Hollingdale rejects this thesis on the grounds that there is only scant evidence as to what precisely Pastor Nietzsche was suffering from when he died. It is known that he was subject to 'very minor' epileptic fits and that nine months before his death he sustained a brain injury, but it is doubtful that he was ever in any sense insane and there is certainly no evidence that he passed on his putative insanity to his son. As regards the actual cause of Nietzsche's collapse of the last months of 1888, Hollingdale concurs in the received view that the philosopher fell victim to a syphilitic infection which degenerated into a condition usually known as general paralysis of the insane. Hollingdale does not conjecture as to the origin of Nietzsche's contraction of syphilis, but it is probable that it was the result of his consorting with prostitutes whilst studying at the University of Bonn.

Hollingdale's discussion of the importance of Wagner in Nietzsche's life and philosophy constitutes one of the most compelling portions of the book. It traces the evolution of Nietzsche's friendship with Wagner from their first meeting in 1869, through the years of Nietzsche's blind devotion as a propagandist of the Wagnerian cause, to the eventual break from Wagner marked by the publication in 1878 of Menschliches Allzumenschliches. The first question Hollingdale raises in connection to Nietzsche's relationship with Wagner concerns the source of his attractiveness to Nietzsche. Hollingdale rightly dismisses the whimsical view that Wagner was a 'father-figure' for Nietzsche and that it is this consideration which best accounts for the hold which the composer had over him. As Hollingdale points out, it may be true that Wagner took on a paternal role in Nietzsche's life: Wagner was just the age Karl Ludwig would have been had he lived and also looked like him. But a more realistic supposition is that it was primarily Wagner's character and genius that fired the philosopher's imagination. Hollingdale describes the experience of Nietzsche's relationship with Wagner as an 'awakening'; it was through his association with Wagner that Nietzsche became aware for the first time of the possibility of human greatness and the meaning of genius.

Hollingdale claims, however, that it was not only Wagner's genius as a composer that captivated Nietzsche; he was also in thrall to certain of Wagner's prose writings, especially those on aesthetics and art-theory. Hollingdale identifies the five works of 1849-51 (Kunst und Revolution, Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, Kunst und Klima, Oper und Drama, Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde) as those which exerted the most profound influence on Nietzsche's early work, and claims that their fundamental effect was to direct Nietzsche's attention towards drama, something in which he had hitherto shown no interest and to which he accorded no special value. Hollingdale argues that Nietzsche's interpretation of Athenian tragedy in Die Geburt der Tragödie (GT) as the fragile synthesis of two aesthetic principles or drives (Apollo and Dionysus) is derived from Wagner's dichotomy of Man and Nature. I think Hollingdale exaggerates the degree of Wagner's influence over Nietzsche in this matter, for although Nietzsche's analysis of tragedy is undoubtedly a counterpart to Wagner's Man and Nature, the dualism of GT is more directly linked to Schopenhauer's categories of 'will' and 'representation'. The Apollo/Dionysus distinction is principally between illusion and truth, individuation and unity; hence, Dionysus corresponds to Schopenhauer's indivisible and ultimately real Will, and Apollo resembles his individuated and inherently illusory world of representation. Of course, it may have been partially under Wagner's influence that Nietzsche too tried to solve problems by means of two self-sufficient principles, but the particularities of Nietzsche's duality certainly derive more from Schopenhauer than from Wagner.

Hollingdale's claim that Nietzsche's theory about the decline of ancient tragedy bears certain correspondences to Wagner's is, I think, more reasonable than the one just discussed. For both Nietzsche and Wagner represent the demise of Attic tragedy as a consequence of the rise of scientific rationalism and the belief in the supremacy of theoretical knowledge. But here too, Hollingdale does Nietzsche a disservice. For to imply, as Hollingdale does, that Nietzsche's account is simply a reiteration of Wagner's, is to underestimate the complexity of one of the most distinguished contributions to nineteenth century aesthetics.

As regards the much discussed issue of the cause of the later discord between Nietzsche and Wagner, Hollingdale simply asserts that Nietzsche's apparent revolt against Wagner was really just a 'return to himself' - an outcome of his growth as a thinker and his resolve to go his own way. This seems to me to be broadly correct, and it is worth noting in support of Hollingdale here that when Nietzsche broke away from Wagner he broke away from his other great mentor, Schopenhauer, as well. As Nietzsche would later put it, he eventually overcame these youthful passions, outgrew the deluded, unconditional admiration for Wagner (although he continued to love his music) and moved to a position of clear-sighted self-determination. One implication of interpreting Nietzsche's break with Wagner in this way is that his later re-appraisal of the composer as a décadent and the personification of everything that was to be rejected in modern culture cannot be taken at face value. For although the anti-Wagnerian Nietzsche did alter some of his views of his former idol on authentic intellectual grounds, it may be assumed that much of his condemnation was induced by a desire to diminish his intellectual debt to Wagner and a need to rid himself of all feelings of subservience to him. Accordingly, the mature Nietzsche's retrospective claims concerning his relationship with Wagner should be viewed with some caution. For their principal aim, I think, was not to provide an accurate mirroring of the facts, but to realize the redemption of Nietzsche's past, a redemption which required him to recreate his earlier self as more unique and self-directed than he actually was.

One of the weaker sections of Hollingdale's book is devoted to a discussion of Darwin's influence on Nietzsche. Hollingdale expounds a contentious view of Nietzsche's philosophy as both assimilating aspects of Darwinism and as an answer to the challenge posed by Darwin. He makes three main claims in this connection. First, he suggests that Nietzsche accepted the fundamental implication of Darwin's hypothesis, namely that mankind had evolved in a purely mechanistic way through fortuitous variations in individual organisms. Second, he claims that Nietzsche's basic interpretation of nature as chaotic, indifferent, and without a directing agency arose straight from his reading of Darwin. Third, he argues that Nietzsche's 'death of god' hypothesis and the related notion of the 'advent of nihilism' were engendered by Nietzsche's realization of the truth of the general conclusions of Darwinism. One initial rejoinder to the first of Hollingdale's claims is that it is at odds with numerous passages in which Nietzsche explicitly repudiates the truth of Darwinism. In particular, Nietzsche questions the cardinal Darwinian tenets of progress ('man as a species is not progressing'), transitional forms of life ('there are no transitional forms…Every type has its limits: beyond these there is no evolution'), and the development of higher species from lower ('that the higher organizations should have evolved out of lower has not been demonstrated in a single case'). Admittedly, such statements as these were probably intended to avert misrepresentations of the Übermensch as an evolutionary phenomenon. But, notwithstanding this consideration, it is difficult to reconcile these remarks with Nietzsche's alleged affirmation of Darwinism. As regards Hollingdale's second assertion, while it is true that Nietzsche's depiction of the natural world as chaotic was informed by a Weltbild which finds its origins at least partially in Darwin's system of nature, it is likely that it grew more directly from Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer had propounded a proto-Darwinian view of nature in his great work Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, published in 1818, more than forty years before the appearance of The Origin of Species. Nature, Schopenhauer thought, was essentially an open bellum omnium contra omnes in which rival egoisms compete for individual satisfaction and survival. In view of Nietzsche's clear denunciation of Darwinism and his initial approbation of and deep immersion in Schopenhauer's philosophy, it seems probable that his own perception of nature owes more to this Schopenhauerian picture, than to Darwin. Finally, Hollingdale's interpretation of Nietzsche's overall philosophical enterprise as essentially an attempt to meet the existential challenges posed by Darwinism is, I believe, quite misleading. It is true that Nietzsche's main philosophical motivation was the need to work out and obviate the existential implications of the 'death of God', but it is anachronistic to construe Western atheism as having been generated by Darwinism alone. Atheism, of course, has its roots in the Enlightenment and eighteenth century rationalism, and so it is inaccurate to portray Darwin as its singular benefactor. Hollingdale is therefore wrong to represent Nietzsche's project as having been exclusively bestowed upon him by the general conclusions of Darwinism.

Despite the minor objections mentioned above, the book's classic status can only have been consolidated by Hollingdale's fresh examination of the text and evidence. It will remain indispensable as an introductory text for students of Nietzsche.

© 2001 Daniel Came


Daniel Came is a graduate student at the University of Oxford where he also teaches philosophy. His principal research interests are the History of German Philosophy and the Philosophy of Art.

This review first appeared online Sept 1, 2001


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