Sunday, November 27, 2011

Reading Nietzche during Advent

I don't know why it is, but during Advent and Christmas I always seem to want to read modern philosophy.   Perhaps because it reminds me what the world escaped when our Savior was born into that cave as an unknown infant.   Every secular modern (post-Christian) philosophy is in some way a regression, a shutting out of what it doesn't care to deal with.   As Chesterton says of the coming together of many things in the Nativity:

The second element is a philosophy larger than other philosophies; larger than that of Lucretius and infinitely larger than that of Herbert Spencer. It looks at the world through a hundred windows where the ancient stoic or the modem agnostic only looks through one. It sees life with thousands of eyes belonging to thousands of different sorts of people, where the other is only the individual standpoint of a stoic or an agnostic. It has something for all moods of man, it finds work for all kinds of men, it understands secrets of psychology, it is aware of depths of evil, it is able to distinguish between real and unreal marvels and miraculous exceptions, it trains itself in tact about bard cases, all with a multiplicity and subtlety and imagination about the varieties of life which is far beyond the bald or breezy platitudes of most ancient or modem moral philosophy. In a word, there is more in it; it finds more in existence to think about; it gets more out of life. 
 Anyway, this Advent I have started reading Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil.   I might blog about it in a naive fashion, just as a reader.   That's why I thought I would mention that I'm reading it, so you aren't surprised if I suddenly start quoting and commenting a seemingly evil crazy person, especially during such a strange time of year.   Winter slows me down and I find I can tackle harder and more unsympathetic books during this time.    "The people in darkness have seen a great light"  -- it seems that I see the light more clearly when I better see the darkness that closes in when the light does not shine.  

My long-term project is to read the Thomas Aquinas College syllabus.   It goes slowly, so slowly that I don't know if I'll finish before my last child finishes college, which will be in 15 years.   But when my kids are going to college, it helps me keep attached to them to read some of the things they are reading.    And I can ask their opinion if I run into a problem with reading books that are basically beyond my philosophical grounding.

Of course, the entire syllabus is not composed of dangerous books.  There is a very fundamental emphasis on reading good things there, things that form the mind rather than test it.  Nevertheless, students do read Hume, Spinoza, Machievelli, Freud, Nietzsche and Marx, not to mention Lucretius and (I think) Empodocles.

The dean of TAC has been presenting some talks to the TAC board of directors and some of them are in article form here.

Here is one called:   Reckoning with Rousseau:  Why Even Bad Books Can Be Great. He uses Rousseau as a paradigm to discuss why it's worthwhile to read "bad" books.  So you could substitute the names of Nietzsche or Spinoza or Machiavelli since the general points apply across the board. 

 A few things he says there that speak to why I bother to use my limited brain power reading difficult books that I don't even agree with, and why I want my kids to go to a college where erroneous but influential thinkers are read and discussed seriously:

Rousseau matters because he had a large effect on the world in both its thinking and the unfolding events of history. ....Without understanding Rousseau it is very difficult to understand the world around us, or even ourselves as children of the modern world.

 he is answering some of the greatest questions that can occupy our minds: what is man? what is his purpose in life? These are timeless questions. These are questions that we have to address if we aim at liberal education.
So Rousseau is in fundamental opposition to us; it is important that our students not shy away from this but rather take it head on, reading and savoring his words and ideas, not lightly dismissing him, but examining the merits of his claims and arguments.

when we judge that Rousseau has erred, we want to see why he went astray and what truth is mixed in with his error. 

 we learn best when we take into account different and opposing arguments. We do not make good judgments, intellectual or practical, when we avoid conflict.

These are all things I agree with.  Dr Kelly also says:

We trust that sober and careful reason is not lightly led astray, especially when it is bolstered by the blessing of Faith. Thus class does not begin with the tutor instructing the students that Rousseau is badly mistaken. Rather, we examine his arguments, in his own words, in the context of a serious discussion and with the Faith as a guiding light.
Here is where I feel a little less confident about myself as a reader, for several reasons.  Though staunchly loyal to my Faith,  I am a convert who was educated in very secular environments deeply influenced by Rousseaun and Lockean methodology and philosophy.

I am not reading with the guidance of a tutor and with the support of fellow students.

I am not approaching the syllabus systematically -- I take it up in bits and pieces.

Thus, I am most definitely not the Very Model of A Sober Careful Reasoner. 

On the other hand, that doesn't make my need to know and judge any the less.   For the very reason that I was bathed in Romanticism, Enlightenment rationalism, and received a genuine but unrigorous Christian catechesis in my younger days, I need to better understand, from the source, the currents of thought in the books I read and the society I live in.  

Everyone philosophizes, either well or badly.   So it's better to try to improve.

I'm not saying that this is for everyone.   And I don't do it year around.  Most of the time I read the Bible, and the saints, and devotional and philosophical works I trust.   And there are times I don't read much at all, except for practical works and read-alouds.

And I think that just living without reading is sufficient.   I know lots of people who read little but act wisely and live well.    But since I have opportunity to read, and will read billboards and cereal boxes if I don't have anything else, and I like to tackle books that make me think, I read hard stuff sometimes because it's there, you know?

So there is my rationale.

So far I can't help feeling sorry for Nietzsche.  He makes the telling if reductive point that philosophy is to some degree autobiography.  And certainly here his form reflects his content, since I hear misery and rage and pride in his approach.  He debunks other philosophies sharply and acutely, but so far (I'm just in the early pages) doesn't seem to be able to proclaim his own systematically.  And I think that's part of his intent, which seems sad in itself, like sound and fury.   He does say some very good things, though.   Some other time I'll quote the bits I like, but this post probably is trying your patience quite enough.    For some reason I can't get my friends and family to listen for very long to this kind of thing (wonder why?) so I resort to my blog because my readers can so easily click away if they aren't interested.

If you have read to the end, you are either a rare kindred spirit, or a very patient and benevolent reader, or someone who has set their Google notifications to give Nietzsche alerts (that happened to me once when I mentioned Ayn Rand on my other blog).    Anyway, thanks for reading to the end and you are totally welcome to comment in any of those cases!


  1. Wow. Neitzche. I'm reading Brother Lawrence during Advent because I rarely read devotionals.

    I recently got a beginning philosophy book by Jacques Maritain that was recommended to me by a FB friend who is a philosophy professor when he read my review of Poetic Knowledge. I'm hoping I have enough brain power over the next few months to read it. I'd been planning on using it with my three oldest starting in January, but it looks like our lives are going to be topsy-turvy for a while.

  2. Brian Kelly explains the reason in a clear language.
    I have read most of Neitzche's works. I did not read Will to Power since it was published posthomously and was not edited by Neitzche himself.

    Guided by the Holy Spirit and our Faith we should be able to navigate in dangerous waters.

  3. I haven't yet read Nietzsche; I've only read about him. A lot of what I've learned about his thinking intrigues me, and I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!