What Nietzsche Taught

Page 51 of 74

[Pg 231]


"The Twilight of the Idols"

Nietzsche followed "The Genealogy of Morals" with "The Case of Wagner," that famous pamphlet in which he excoriated the creator of Parsifal. Immediately after the publication of this attack, he began work on what was to be still another preparatory book for "The Will to Power." For its title he first chose "Idle Hours of a Psychologist." The book, a brief one, was already on the presses when he changed the caption to "Gtzendmmerung"—"The Twilight of the Idols"—a titular parody on Wagner's "Gtterdmmerung" For a subtitle he appended a characteristically Nietzschean phrase—"How to Philosophise with the Hammer." The writing of this work was done with great rapidity: it was accomplished in but a few days during August, 1888. In September it was sent to the publisher, but during its printing Nietzsche added a chapter headed "What the Germans Lack," and several aphorisms to the section called "Skirmishes in a War with the Age." In January, 1889, the book appeared.

Nietzsche was then stricken with his fatal illness, and this was the last book of his to appear during his lifetime. "The Antichrist" was already finished, having been written in the fall of 1888 immediately after the completion of "The Twilight of the Idols." "Ecce Homo" his autobiography, was written in October, 1888; and during December Nietzsche again gave his[Pg 232] attention to Wagner, drafting "Nietzsche contra Wagner," a pamphlet made up entirely of excerpts from his earlier writings. This work, intended to supplement "The Case of Wagner," was not published until 1895, although it had been printed and corrected before the author's final breakdown. "The Antichrist" appeared at the same time as this second Wagner document, while "Ecce Homo" was withheld from publication until 1908. "The Twilight of the Idols" sold 9,000 copies, but Nietzsche's mind was too clouded to know or care that at last he was coming into his own, that the public which had denied him so long had finally begun to open its eyes to his greatness.

In many ways "The Twilight of the Idols" is one of Nietzsche's most brilliant books. Being more compact, it consequently possesses a greater degree of precision and clarity than is found in his more analytical writings. It is not, however, a treatise to which one may go without considerable preparation. With the exception of "Thus Spake Zarathustra," it demands more on the part of the reader than any of Nietzsche's other books. It is, for the most part, composed of conclusions and comments which grow directly out of the laborious ethical research of his preceding volumes, and presupposes in the student an enormous amount of reading, not only of Nietzsche's own writings but of philosophical works in general. But once equipped with this preparation, one will find more of contemporary interest in it than in the closely organised books such as "Beyond Good and Evil" and "The Genealogy of Morals." There are few points in Nietzsche's philosophy not found here. For a compact expression of his entire teaching I know of no better book to which one might turn. Nietzsche[Pg 233] himself, to judge from a passage in his "Ecce Homo" intended this book as a statement of his whole ethical system. He probably meant that it should present in toto the principal data of his foregoing studies, in order that the reader might be familiar with all the steps in his philosophy before setting forth upon the formidable doctrines of "The Will to Power." Obviously, therefore, it is not a book for beginners. Being expositional rather than argumentative, it is open to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. It contains apparent contradictions which might confuse the student who has not followed Nietzsche in the successive points which led to his conclusions, and who is unfamiliar with the exact definitions attached to certain words relating to human conduct.

Other qualities of a misleading nature are to be encountered in this book. Many of the paragraphs have about them an air of mere cleverness, although in reality they embody profound concepts. The reader ignorant of the inner seriousness of Nietzsche will accept these passages only at their surface value. Of the forty-four short epigrams which comprise the opening chapter, I have appended but three, for fear they would be judged solely by their superficial characteristics. Many of the other aphorisms throughout the book lend themselves all too easily to the same narrow judgment.

Again, "The Problem of Socrates," the second division of the book, because of its profundity, presents many difficulties to the unprepared student. Here is a criticism of the Socratic ideals which requires, in order that it be intelligently grasped, not only a wide general knowledge, but also a specific training in the uprooting of prejudices and of traditional ethical conceptions—such a training as can be acquired only by a close study of[Pg 234] Nietzsche's own destructive works. The explanation of Socrates's power, the condemnation of that ancient philosopher's subtle glorification of the canaille, the reasons for his secret fascination, and the interpretation of his whole mental progress culminating in his death—all this is profound and categorical criticism which has its roots in the very fundamentals of Nietzsche's philosophy. But because it is so deep-rooted, it therefore presents a wide and all-inclusive vista of that philosophy from which it stems. Furthermore, this criticism of Socrates poses a specific problem which can be answered only by resorting to the doctrines which underlie Nietzsche's entire thought. In like manner the chapter, "Reason in Philosophy," is understandable only in the light of those investigations set forth in "Beyond Good and Evil."

Under the caption, "The Four Great Errors," Nietzsche uproots a series of correlated beliefs which have the accumulated impetus of centuries of acceptance behind them. These "errors," as stated, are (1) the error of the confusion of cause and effect, (2) the error of false causality, (3) the error of imaginary causes, and (4) the error of free will. The eradication of these errors is necessary for a complete acceptance of Nietzsche's philosophy. But unless one is familiar with the vast amount of criticism which has led up to the present discussion of them, one will experience difficulty in following the subtly drawn arguments and analogies presented against them. To demonstrate briefly the specific application of the first error, namely: the confusion of cause and effect, I offer an analogy stated in the passage. We know that Christian morality teaches us that a people perish through vice and luxury—that is to say, that these two conditions are causes of racial degeneration.[Pg 235] Nietzsche's contention to the contrary is that when a nation is approaching physiological degeneration, vice and luxury result in the guise of stimuli adopted by exhausted natures. By this it can be seen how the Christian conscience is developed by a misunderstanding of causes; and it can also be seen how this error may affect the very foundation on which morality is built. I am here stating merely the conclusion: for the reasons leading up to this conclusion one must go to the book direct.

Nietzsche denies the embodiment of the motive of an action in the "inner facts of consciousness" where, so we have been taught by psychologists and physicists, the responsibilities of conduct are contained. The will itself, he argues, is not a motivating force; rather is it an effect of other deeper causes. This is what he discusses in his paragraphs dealing with the second error of false causality. In his criticism of the third error relating to imaginary causes, he points to the comfort we obtain by attributing a certain unexplained fact to a familiar cause—by tracing it to a commonplace source—thereby doing away with its seeming mystery. Thus ordinary maladies or afflictions, or, to carry the case into moral regions, misfortunes and unaccountable strokes of fate, are explained by finding trite and plausible reasons for their existence. As a consequence the habit of postulating causes becomes a fixed mental habit. In the great majority of cases, and especially in the domain of morality and religion, the causes are false, inasmuch as the operation of finding them depends on the mental characteristics of the searcher. The error of free will Nietzsche attributes to the theologians' attempt to make mankind responsible for its acts and therefore amenable to punishment. I have been able to present his own words in explanation[Pg 236] of this error, and they will be found at the end of this chapter—41-42 and 43.

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