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  • Nietzsche and Friendship by Willow Verkerk
  • Robert Miner
Willow Verkerk, Nietzsche and Friendship
London: Bloomsbury, 2019. xx + 189 pp. ISBN: 978-1-3500-4734-1 (cloth); 978-1-3501-7717-8 (paper). Cloth, $120.00; paper, $39.95.

This book proposes a novel interpretation of Nietzsche’s thinking about friendship, a topic that remains understudied. Verkerk’s project takes its point of departure from questions about the nature of friendship and its relation to other themes in Nietzsche. Primary among these are the intellectual conscience, the ubiquity of the agon, the project of “becoming who you are,” the relation (and distinction) between ego and self, the free spirit, the critique of pity, the multiplicity and (un)knowability of the drives, the will to power, and relations between men and women.

How successful is Verkerk’s elucidation of Nietzsche’s thinking about friendship? At one level, the book does admirably what it sets out to do. It persuasively makes any number of connections between Nietzsche’s thinking about friendship and the themes mentioned above. To give three examples that must stand for many others: (1) Verkerk’s keen sense that many human associations that appear to be friendships are actually modes of self-escape that betray a lack of what GS 21 calls “noble selfishness”; (2) her insight that the development of the intellectual conscience does not happen in the void, but requires engagement with others, at least some of whom should be friends (104); (3) her acute awareness of the ways that pity (Mitleid) can damage friendship, since pity tends so often to be a “largely disabling and reductive perspective that fails to adequately acknowledge the situation and feelings of the suffering friend” (63).

Because it abounds in particular insights, Verkerk’s book is worthwhile for any reader of Nietzsche. Regarding its main interpretive proposal, however, some questions arise. Verkerk holds that if one attends to the full range of Nietzsche’s texts (and not just the “middle period” works in which the treatment of friendship is most visibly thematic), one will discover a clear [End Page 99] distinction among three different kinds of friendship: joyful friendships, agonistic friendships, and bestowing friendships. “Like Aristotle’s three kinds of friendship: of utility, pleasure, and virtue, Nietzsche delineates friendship into three kinds, albeit much less explicitly” (2). That Nietzsche does many things implicitly is true. It is therefore possible that he intends to imply a distinction between three kinds of friendship, even if he never states it outright. But in order to convince the reader of this interpretive proposal, Verkerk assumes the burden of demonstrating that Nietzsche actually does this.

Building on previous treatments, Verkerk establishes that Nietzsche describes and commends an agonistic conception of friendship. Such friendships, she argues, correspond to the relation of two people in whom an initial desire to possess one another yields to a “shared higher thirst for an ideal above them”—a thirst that strengthens the capacity for self-reflection and the tenacious posing of hard questions. Even if the goal of agonistic friendships is not “concrete truth” (43), it remains plausible that truth (or truthfulness) pertains to the higher ideal. As Verkerk acknowledges, the subject of an agonistic friendship is “an imagined, very possible self that rigorously pursues open-ended truth in conjunction with the intellectual conscience and, through an accumulation of knowledge, learns how to overcome its burdens and become a creating human being, a transvaluator” (60). One may distinguish between the passion for knowledge (which Nietzsche values highly) on the one hand, and a general or “metaphysical” conception of truth (about which Nietzsche is skeptical) on the other hand—so long as one avoids suppressing his sense that our relation to particular truths (or “open-ended truth,” as Verkerk puts it) remains important.

If agonistic friendships are difficult for many to sustain, does it follow for Nietzsche that most people lack the capacity for real friendship? This question Verkerk answers in the negative: “he has other concepts of friendship that are appropriate for a greater number of people and do not involve the practice of agonistics, but instead focus on joy and giving or receiving” (51). Verkerk detects a second kind...


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pp. 99-104
Launched on MUSE
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