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Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (review)
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Reviewed by
Rüdiger Safranski. Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, trans. Shelly Frisch. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2002. 412 pp.

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes that "gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir" (BGE, § 6).1 In a letter to Brandes dated 10 April 1888, Nietzsche also writes, "the person who does not find himself addressed personally by [my] work will probably have nothing more to do with me."2 Perhaps more than any other philosopher of the modern period, Nietzsche invites the kind of "highly personal" Biographie seines Denkens that Rüdiger Safranski offers in his crisply written Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. As the translator, Shelly Frisch rightly notes in her preface to the English edition, that "Safranski excels at the art of philosophical narration" (14). With a graceful and eloquent narrative, he weaves together "subtle, yet riveting, descriptions of the major junctures in Nietzsche's life that served to mark turning points in his [Nietzsche's] philosophical orientation" (14). Moreover, Safranski brings "the facts of [Nietzsche's] life" to bear on the narrative only insofar as they "shed light" on the development of Nietzsche's philosophical thinking. These "facts" include such well-know events as the death of Nietzsche's "outstanding father" at an early age, which "brought [Nietzsche] under the exclusive care of women, thus depriving him of male supervision, which he sorely missed" (32); Nietzsche's often strained relationship with the women in his life, especially his mother and sister; his service in the Franco-Prussian war (70); the "wild years" in Tribschen and Bayreuth with Wagner and Cosima (85–154); the "intellectual ménage a trois" with Paul Rée and Lou Salomé (245–75); and his "highly aggressive impromptu proposal of marriage to Mathilde Trampedach" (250).

The major drawback of Safranski's "philosophical biography" approach is that it tends to focus almost exclusively on the earlier stages in the development of Nietzsche's thinking (when the biographical events in his life were more interesting), and it gives short shrift to the astonishingly productive later years of 1883–88, when Nietzsche wrote most of his mature philosophical works, but when the biographical events of his life were less than extraordinary. As a consequence, Safranski leaves the reader with an unbalanced view of the full range of Nietzsche's writings: earlier works such as the Birth of Tragedy, Human, All Too Human, and the Untimely Meditations are discussed in great detail, while Nietzsche's later (and, arguably, better) works such as Genealogy of Morals and Twilight of the Idols are mentioned only in passing.

Still, the one redeeming virtue of Safranski's book is that it focuses on the intriguing, but often overlooked, concept of "self-configuration" or "self-fashioning" (Selbstgestaltung), and it treats this concept as a unifying thread that runs throughout the maze of Nietzsche's various multifarious writings. As a result, Safranski successfully connects Nietzsche's "highly personal philosophy" to the multifaceted "maneuvers of self-configuration" (298) and to what Safranski sees as the overall Nietzschean project of "fashioning one's own identity" in an otherwise meaningless world (41). As Nietzsche writes, "It is a measure of the degree of strength of the will to what extent one can do without [fixed] meaning in things [and] to what extent one can endure to live in a meaningless world because one learns to fashion a small portion of it oneself" (WP, §585A).3

Chapter 8, in particular, focuses on the main theme of self-fashioning and on what Safranski (quoting Nietzsche) calls making "a whole person of ourselves" (185; HAH I, 95).4 According to Safranski, Nietzsche felt that this "quest for wholeness" was the "loftiest task that any individual could achieve in a lifetime" (185). Echoing Pierre Hadot's notion of "philosophy as a way of life," Safranski claims that Nietzsche's entire life "was a testing ground for thought" (181).5 Nietzsche tried to fashion his life so as to "render his life a quotable basis for his thought...