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Nietzsche's Task: An Interpretation of "Beyond Good and Evil" (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 40, Number 2, April 2002
pp. 270-271 | 10.1353/hph.2002.0028

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.2 (2002) 270-271

Book Review

Laurence Lampert. Nietzsche's Task: An Interpretation of "Beyond Good and Evil." New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. Pp. x + 320. Cloth, $40.00.

Laurence Lampert's new book Nietzsche's Task offers a section-by-section commentary on one of Nietzsche's most influential works, Beyond Good and Evil. The challenge of such a project is to unify the commentary while doing justice to the range of discussions in the original. Lampert answers this challenge by subsuming his interpretation of each section to an overall interpretation of this work and of Nietzsche's philosophical enterprise generally.

Lampert argues that Beyond Good and Evil presents a political philosophy, aimed at a transformation of culture. Nietzsche advocates the rule of "new philosophers," a rare type of human being at a higher spiritual rank than most people. Being a genuine philosopher himself, Nietzsche's insights are not accessible to everyone. Consequently, his writings are esoteric, their real import obscured from the common reader. The goal of philosophy is "to attain reasonable and comprehensive conclusions about the world" (19). Nietzsche, accordingly, is not a skeptic. He articulates his own conclusion about the world in the teaching of the will to power, the foundation on which his other views are built. Nietzsche seeks to liberate "the true" from morality, inverting Plato's restriction of "the true" to what can be subordinated to "the good." Philosophy should not be the handmaiden to any other agenda, but instead should rule over humanity and its enterprises, such as science and religion.

Some of the emphases in this interpretation will be familiar to those acquainted with the reading of Nietzsche given by Leo Strauss, whose influence Lampert repeatedly acknowledges. Those who are not persuaded by Strauss's interpretation will probably be unconvinced by many of Lampert's views as well. Particularly controversial, in my opinion, is the view that Nietzsche is an esoteric writer. As evidence, Lampert points to Nietzsche's strategies of inciting the reader to draw certain conclusions. But it is not obvious that Nietzsche aims to indoctrinate his intended audience. I would argue that Nietzsche aims to inspire independent thought without constraining it, a view that his emphases on agon, gay science, and perspectivism supports. One might also challenge the position that Nietzsche is an esoteric writer on the ground that it encourages unfalsifiable claims about Nietzsche's meaning. Passages that do not obviously support one's interpretation can be defused by analyzing them as masks for his esoteric doctrine.

Lampert's reading also suggests that Nietzsche's views were far more fixed than I find plausible. What others may read as Nietzsche's thought experiments, Lampert sees as devices for compelling philosophical readers to adopt his agenda. One might alternatively read Nietzsche, however, as a much more open-minded thinker, who frequently transcribes the processes of his thinking with the aim of engaging in an open-ended dialogue with his intended audience. Lampert's Nietzsche is not free-spirited. Consistently, he translates 'freie Geist' not as "free spirit" but as "free mind." Even the "free mind," on Lampert's view, is free only from certain errors of the tradition. Lampert insists that the free mind is actually "bound" to true judgments.

Lampert also interprets Nietzsche as primarily a political philosopher, focused on society as a whole, rather than individual spirituality. Political themes may be emphasized in Beyond Good and Evil, but some of Nietzsche's other works focus much more prominently on individual psychology and spiritual development. Given Nietzsche's emphasis on the importance of the individual and his characterization of Beyond Good and Evil as making a negative case against the lies of millennia, one might view the political as a means for the development of the superior individual, not the other way around.

Although I disagree with many of the broad emphases of Lampert's interpretation, I applaud its challenges to certain platitudes about Nietzsche. I particularly appreciate its extended argument that Nietzsche's rejection of the Christian religion does not entail the rejection of all aspects of religion as such, though I would have liked more precise delineation...



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