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This review of the Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins book was originally published in the January 2001 issue of the Bay Review, an online liberal arts journal no longer in existence. If you wish to purchase the book, you may order it from Amazon.com or wherever you prefer to buy books.

A Review of Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins's What Nietzsche Really Said (New York: Schocken Books-Random House, 2000)


Steven C. Scheer

The title, What Nietzsche Really Said, was not quite freely chosen by the book's authors, Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins. The book is part of Schocken's What They Really Said Series. Yet it is nevertheless the title that I wish to comment on to begin with. In an essay of mine ("The Art of Reading," which can also be found on this Web site), I make the provocative observation that readers never get what a text means, they only get what a text says. Which is true, literally. For it is on the basis of what a text says that the reader has to figure out what it means. Of course, Solomon and Higgins clearly imply that their book is about what Nietzsche has really meant (to say) by saying what he does, in fact, say. Really.

I hope that the somewhat mischievous opening of my review does justice to the spirit of the book so entertainingly as well as insightfully presented by Solomon and Higgins. It is, by the way, not easy to write this review, even though the book in question is not at all difficult to read. The problem is that the book is so packed with information, which issues from the knowledge of its authors, that Nietzsche's wisdom in its pages revels in the complex simplicity of all its "philosophical" grandeur, about which there are clearly no delusions here, even though the object of What Nietzsche Really Said is undoubtedly to demythologize the abundant misunderstandings and misreadings that have beset Nietzsche's thought as well as his reputation for generations of readers.

It is, in fact, because "what Nietzsche really said gets lost in a maze of falsehoods, misinterpretations, and exaggerations" (xiii-xiv) that Solomon and Higgins have written this book. Their intention has been to debunk much that has come to be associated with Nietzsche, both by his allies and by his enemies. The book's first chapter (cleverly entitled "Rumors: Wine, Women, and Wagner") devotes itself to a telling counter to no less than 30 misconceptions engendered by Nietzsche's thought and reputation. Solomon and Higgins convincingly show us that Nietzsche wasn't crazy, that he didn't hate women, that he wasn't a (proto-)Nazi, that he didn't hate Jews (his break with Wagner was, in fact, due in part to the latter's anti-Semitism), that he wasn't a nihilist, that he didn't hate Christianity (although his criticism of Christianity on the grounds that it rejects this world and inspires resentment and self-hatred is strong, of course). And the foregoing is a list of just six of the 30 "rumors" about Nietzsche that are, according to Solomon and Higgins, not really true.

The follow-up to this great debunking chapter is a logical next move in What Nietzsche Really Said in that it explores with us the how of reading Nietzsche - this ingenious philosopher who was as much an artist as a philosopher and who, as an artist, was as much given to paradox and irony, to metaphor and apparent self-contradiction, as any poetic genius worthy of his or her fame. Though not a nihilist or even a relativist, Nietzsche clearly rejects absolutism on the grounds that "rigid statements do not reflect our world's reality," and that "any statement held as dogma is really a prejudice" (56). For Solomon and Higgins Nietzsche's "perspectivism" is a healthy antidote to the erroneous view that truths are unchanging and absolute. Even Nietzsche's own "illuminating statements" may "fail to tell us the entire story. It is always worth our while to reexamine, to see if we may have missed some feature of value in an object, a person, or a situation" (57). As far as Nietzsche is concerned, we can never be sure that we are absolutely right. If we are so convinced, we are much more likely to be absolutely wrong.

Solomon and Higgins do a fine job of exploring Nietzsche's thought. They discuss the ideas most people are familiar with without fully understanding them, such as the notorious "will to power," the challenging "death of God," or the elusive "√úbermensch" (Superman). They also clarify Nietzsche's quarrel with "morality" and/or "Christianity" by revealing what he really means by "slave" vs. "master morality" (the first is grounded in self-hatred and resentment, while the second is rooted in a healthy self-respect; the first is an example of herd mentality, while the second is the triumph of the individual over conformity to the merely conventional).

Nietzsche had a notorious love/hate relationship with many of his predecessors and contemporaries. Solomon and Higgins informatively highlight his many instances of argumentum ad hominem. Nietzsche was critical of all those he also clearly admired, including Socrates and Jesus (Wagner is also on this list, of course), and he felt that it wasn't just their ideas that could be seen as objectionable because we are all, in a sense, personally implicated in the ideas that we do in fact hold. Attacking the ideas of others, therefore, is paramount to attacking the persons themselves, thus the justification, in Nietzsche's eyes, for ad hominem. What Nietzsche holds against both Socrates and Jesus, for example, is that "they ignore individual excellence in favor of some supposedly grander concern - pleasing God, serving the public good, obeying the dictates of reason, saving one's immortal soul" (177).

If there is one key that may well unlock the many rooms in Nietzsche's treasure house of thought (although I am not at all enamored of the "key" metaphor), it is the conflict between Apollo and Dionysius. Although many think of Nietzsche as Dionysian (and he frequently seems to encourage this), the secret to Nietzsche's integrity (integrity being one of many virtues that he consistently advocates) is not either/or but and/both. This is, in fact, the thesis of his first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872). Apollo's clarity is not enough. It needs to be counterbalanced by Dionysian intoxication. With the first alone Greek tragedy would never have succeeded in achieving what Aristotle calls "catharsis," the "purgation of pity and fear" in the audience. Contrary to popular belief, Nietzsche isn't simply against clarity, nor is he simply in favor of intoxication (in fact, in real life, he hardly aware touched wine), he is in favor of both the Apollonian and the Dionysian aspects of all of our endeavors.

Nietzsche's enduring legacy (and his influence even on so-called postmodernism) has to do with what Solomon and Higgins call his perspectivism. This issues from Nietzsche's "own willingness to acknowledge a diversity of moral outlooks as healthy and desirable. From his point of view, we would be better off resisting the rigid moralities that make us feel competent to judge others harshly. Instead, we would be better served by making non-judgmental efforts to understand others as well as ourselves. Nietzsche attempts to put moralities and moralists in their place by stressing that everyone's moral outlook reflects the limitations of a personal perspective." Not for Nietzsche the "pretensions of self-righteousness" (225). Would that we were all capable of what he advocates. Perhaps reading more of Nietzsche's works with such able guides as Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins could put us on the right path.

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Copyright 2000 - 2001 © by Steven C. Scheer. All rights reserved.

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