- Simply Nietzsche by Peter Kail
Quite an appealing book, Peter Kail’s Simply Nietzsche introduces Nietzsche’s thought by reviewing his published work from BT to EH. Simply Nietzsche is neither a long nor a laborious read. Nor does it invest much time in minutely carved debates about understanding this or that passage or alleged inconsistencies between Nietzsche’s various claims. Rather, Simply Nietzsche displays the virtues of a good introduction. In direct and transparent prose, it guides the reader new to Nietzsche through many of his most important arguments, displays how seemingly disparate claims are elements of a whole, and reveals what is most notable, novel, and peculiar about those claims and that whole. Some will complain that topics are not always discussed in the order that Nietzsche presents them and that coverage on crucial points is thin. But brevity is essential and topic hopping unavoidable—Kail has a big job in front of him, and he cannot waste words. Luckily, his good sense yields incisive, illuminating, and thorough interpretation.
In the preface, Kail outlines Nietzsche’s life, dismisses postmodern interpretations of Nietzsche, and comments briefly on his writing style. Here, I think that Kail draws too little attention to what makes reading Nietzsche so rewarding. For all his sexism, self-preening ambition, and frenzied hyperbole, Nietzsche is an exciting read because his thinking is so startlingly original, takes so many unexpected turns, and is such a high-wire act. It is not always apparent that he will successfully land his thought, and sometimes he fails spectacularly. But what is never in doubt are his daring to say things that no one else is able or willing to say and [End Page 313] his ability to say them clearly. And the dazzling flourishes that he regularly drops throughout his books invite us to reread them again and again to catch what we missed the first, second, or twelfth time through. Nietzsche is one of those rare philosophical writers whose prose style and philosophical content work together to create a genuinely engaged reading experience.
Nietzsche’s BT (1872) is the first step on a road whose twists and turns he did not himself appreciate until later and whose terminus madness prevented him from reaching. BT responds to a question posed by Schopenhauer: Is life worth living? Schopenhauer thought not. Nietzsche distinguishes between the Apollonian and Dionysian to give a positive answer. Greek tragedy combines the Apollonian poet’s contemplation of images and forms imposed on the world with Dionysian music to produce a unique synthesis that shows that while life has no happy ending, we can nevertheless affirm it through an aesthetic intoxication with the “primor-dial unity of the world” (4). Given this possibility, music can, even now, underwrite an aesthetic justification of existence.
Nietzsche’s experience in the Franco-Prussian War had unburdened him of nationalism as early as 1871, and his estrangement from Wagner, anticipated in 1873 and reaching a decision point in 1876 after attending the first Bayreuth Festival, frees Nietzsche from Wagner’s anti-Semitic megalomania and jumpstarts the doubts that result in his replacing the metaphysical excesses of BT with naturalism. HH (1878) represents a hard turn away from Wagner and a reconsideration of the aesthetic response to the problem of life’s meaning. Nietzsche adopts Friedrich Lange’s neo-Kantian naturalistic perspective against metaphysics and Paul Rée’s psychologistic perspective about moral sensations to analyze European morality and the two-world metaphysical systems that support it. Hence the title of HH—as Nietzsche was to note later, “the title says: ‘where you see ideal things, I see human, all-too-human things’” (EH “Books: HH” 1).
I think that Kail does readers a minor disservice by glossing over most of Nietzsche’s attacks on metaphysics, here in HH and elsewhere. However, Kail’s focus on Nietzsche’s preoccupation with Christian morality’s dominance in Europe is undoubtedly correct. Nietzsche tries in HH to understand moral sensations, free will, and the place of unegoistic actions, the latter of which...