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Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (review)

From: The Journal of Nietzsche Studies
Issue 41, Spring 2011
pp. 115-119 | 10.1353/nie.2011.0012

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In 2006 Julian Young published Nietzsche's Philosophy of Religion, a book in which he argued that the standard view of Nietzsche as a staunch individualist and atheist was incorrect. From The Birth of Tragedy onward, Young claimed, Nietzsche had written from a communitarian standpoint that embraced religion as a source of inspiriting myth, uniting groups into a folk. Heretical as this view was in the academy, there was considerable evidence for Young's position, and it is noteworthy that the individualistic side of Nietzsche excites more interest in the English-speaking countries (and particularly the United States with its heritage of Emerson and Thoreau) than on the European continent. If Young's thesis was new and piquant, however, it seemed of secondary importance. While Nietzsche certainly celebrated a communitarian outlook in the works before Human, All Too Human, any such tendencies seem comparatively vestigial in the later books, where (when they surface at all) they appear rather as reflexive memories of earlier views than living ideas still generative of consequences. There were few, if any, converts to the new point of view.

Young has apparently not yet conceded. In his new book, Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, he returns to the fray, arguing for the same views that had proved unconvincing before. But there is a difference. Nietzsche's Philosophy of Religion was plainly polemical and tilted toward the academic community. Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography presents itself as a non-partisan work of scholarship, a magisterial survey of the life and works of Friedrich Nietzsche that attempts to do justice to both. Young not only discusses all the books Nietzsche himself prepared for publication (as well as some of the juvenilia and Nachlaß) but embeds these in an account of the man's life that is clearly intended to compete with the comprehensive biographies of Ronald Hayman and Curtis Cate. He further presents these in racy language and with a disarming informality that will appeal to students. Behind the appearance of judicious authority and sage command of facts, however, he disseminates the same views that raised so many eyebrows in the past. Young is presenting as authoritative ideas that almost no one believes except him.

This bias is enabled by the unusual way Young structures his book. One might expect that a work purporting to present both biography and philosophy (and which is moreover subtitled "A Philosophical Biography") would explore the interplay between those two. Young does attempt this occasionally. He observes, for example, that dislike of Wagner the man preceded Nietzsche's criticism of Wagner's music and that the Lou Salomé incident led to a new ferocity toward women in Nietzsche's books. Less mechanically and more resonantly, he argues that Nietzsche came to admire Epicurus partly because he found in the latter's teachings the "philosophical 'self-doctoring'" (280) needed to address his own health issues.

Such observations prove to be exceptions in this book, and necessarily so, for Young segregates most discussions of Nietzsche's philosophy into discrete sections separate from the narrative. (He even distinguishes the two by assigning them different type styles: italic headers for the philosophic sections and roman for the biographic.) There are clear advantages to this formal decision. It allows Young to analyze Nietzsche's works at length without concern that he has veered too far from the biographical narrative. It also makes navigation of the text convenient for those who want to read just the life or just his analyses. Nonetheless, by literally segregating action and thought, Young has removed from Nietzsche's life the very activities that gave it meaning, those that he called his "task." When these intellectual and moral tensions are shelved off, the "life" is reduced to inglorious struggles with ill health and Nietzsche's sometimes maladroit relationships with women. These are aspects he would hardly want stressed, and they are rarely central to his attempt "to become who one is."

This problem is compounded by Young's almost total neglect of Nietzsche's reading of contemporary writers, that is, the intellectual society with which he consorted almost daily. Young discusses Strauss, Schopenhauer, and Lange but mentions Emerson only once. He cites Spir only...

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