Why I am So Wise

donate Why I Am So Wise is but one chapter of Ecce Homo by Friedrich Nietzsche; but in this debased age it is extracted as the title of a short book in the Penguin books "great ideas" series. Quite why Penguin have honoured this self-indulgent bombast is a mystery to me. I read the Penguin version; it is probably digested though it doesn't say so. Comparing it to an online version there are obvious differences. I'm not going to care about that; I'm not interested in differential textual analysis of N, nor am I interested in reading him at greater length. The bits considered here are Why I Am So Wise / So Clever / Write Such Good Books / Am A Destiny (or "Am A Fatality" in the online version). And to round off the intro: I read this because a friend recommended it (thanks RC).

There's a lot of ponce in the book; I won't go into that, this review by "John" seems to cover most of it1. I found the online version via IA, and since they're having a fundraising drive now, my image links to their "donate" page; I did.

You cannot be serious

The book reeks so much of pretentious puffery that it is hard to see how it can ever have been intended to be taken seriously. Nonetheless, people appear to do so and I suspect that N intended it as such. But nonetheless always in a "playful" vein which conveniently allows him to disown any particular sentence or fragment that might otherwise embarrass him. To me it reads more like Oscar Wilde tossing off epigrams at a rout than anything serious. As to deniability, wiki says of the title "Ecce HomoIn this regard, the wording of his title was not meant to draw parallels with Jesus, but to suggest a certain kind of contrast and so on. It is all like that.

I been Ayn Randed, nearly branded Communist, 'cause I'm left-handed That's the hand I use, well, never mind

Simon and Garfunkel, as I'm sure you knew. Why do I mention it? All the stuff about the weakness of pity and how terrible Christianity is. You'll want quotes, so: a creed so wretched as ChristianityChristians and other Nihiliststhe degenerate instinct which turns upon life with a subterranean lust of vengeance (Christianity; it is only among decadents that this pity is called a virtue... The overcoming of pity I reckon among the noble virtues; and so on. As it happens, I have some sympathy with this, though not in the way it is said. It is eerily reminiscent of Ayn Rand (although of course, given the time order, it is actually the other way round), of which my recently vanity re-published book review will provide you a handy ready-reckoner. See-also Master-Slave morality, if you can bear it.


In the paper version he declares himself a pure-blooded Polish nobleman; he speaks disparagingly of German culture but dotes on the French; and so on. Wiki tells me he had his Prussian citizenship annulled. There's loadsa pop-psychology in there so I feel free to indulge in some briefly: doesn't denial of one's nationality and apparent loathing of one's nation imply a degree of self-hate inappropriate for the man N claimed to be?


The S-word doesn't appear anywhere in the wiki article about N, it is far too elevated for that sort of thing. But even the mealy-mouthy Friedrich Nietzsche's views on women is obliged to quote some of his poison. The best you can say is that it was the kind of trash people wrote in those days, and other men at nice dinner parties tended to agree with it, and pass over such as Women all like me. . . . But that's an old story : save, of course, the abortions among them, the emancipated ones, those who lack the wherewithal to have children.


More dangerous ground here, particularly as I'm unread in this area and am piecing things together without bothering to read all the sources. You cannot accuse N of being a Nazi of course; he predated them. And I saw nothing anti-semitic in there. But what there is in spades is what Popper complained about in TOSAIEv2: stuff like: The truth of the first essay is the psychology of Christianity: the birth of Christianity out of the spirit of resentment, not, as is supposed, out of the "Spirit,"—in all its essentials, a counter-movement, the great insurrection against the dominion of noble values... Can you see what is wrong with that? If you can't, you may need to read Popper, who says it better than me. It is the denigration of decent behaviour in favour of allowing free reign to "noble"s to behave as they wish. Which segues into National Destiny and it's all downhill from there.

On the meaning of words

One cannot help but notice how much of N is subject to interpretation. He uses ambiguous words and phrases, perhaps out of simple intellectual inclarity, but more likely out of the previously alluded to desire for plausible deniability (I commented on deliberate avoidance of precise language in the context of Curry, in 2014). I find N inferior to Popper or Hayek - or Hobbes, or Smith, or indeed anyone of whom I've been able to approve - on this ground.


1. You may need to discount point 3 somewhat, though: N does appear to have some military service, if I can trust wiki.


* The Grumpy Economist: John Cochrane's blog: Economists as Public Intellectuals


John Bowles said...

Don't worry, because after the Revolution we are going to soak the rich! In the mean time, don't have any kids, over population is a problem, and your kids will only be exploited by the rich, or suffer from climate change.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Don't underestimate the irony in Nietzsche. Quote: "So, you go to woman? Do not forget your whip." (maybe from Zarathustra).

You might like this picture of him, Rilke and Lou Salome: https://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=https%3A%2F%2Fs-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com%2Foriginals%2Ffc%2F35%2F2e%2Ffc352e80d16ebfe4e7e4f2c0f8a038ce.jpg&imgrefurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.pinterest.com%2Fpin%2F65020788343864820%2F&docid=OmmJSTM6-T94JM&tbnid=sn7UhBg3j1zwkM%3A&vet=10ahUKEwi-56D39q3YAhVLhlQKHcJgCP8QMwhAKAEwAQ..i&w=909&h=1024&bih=804&biw=1438&q=nietzsche%20rilke%20lou%20salome&ved=0ahUKEwi-56D39q3YAhVLhlQKHcJgCP8QMwhAKAEwAQ&iact=mrc&uact=8

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

I guess the third person in the pic is Paul Ree rather than Rilke.

William M. Connolley said...

I tried to address the irony in "You cannot be serious". I think irony is fine for self-indulgence; or for lightweight blogs; or for novelists. For anyone with any intent to be taken seriously in philosophy it is a hindrance. Perhaps N had bad teachers or bad exemplars to follow? He was young; the history of German philosophy is littered with the incomprehensible; he may simply have come to mistake incomprehensibility for depth.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Anyone looking for a more serious assessment of Nietzsche's last work should check out Wikipedia, e.g.,

"According to one of Nietzsche's most prominent English translators, Walter Kaufmann, the book offers "Nietzsche's own interpretation of his development, his works, and his significance."[1] The book contains several chapters with ironic self-laudatory titles, such as "Why I Am So Wise", "Why I Am So Clever", "Why I Write Such Good Books" and "Why I Am a Destiny". Walter Kaufmann, in his biography Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist noticed the internal parallels, in form and language, to Plato's Apology which documented the Trial of Socrates. In effect, Nietzsche was putting himself on trial with this work, and his sardonic judgments and chapter headings are mordant, mocking, self-deprecating, sly, and they turn this trial against his future accusers, distorters, and superficial judges."

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Let me just say that Nietzsche no more needed to fit into WC's model of a serious philosopher than Socrates needed to fit into that of Athens.

wereatheist said...

I'm certainly not intending to defend Nietzsche's rank among philosophers, but at least I have to defend him against the accusation of being an antisemitist.
This might be interesting.

wereatheist said...

Of course, you did not accuse N. because of that.

William M. Connolley said...

> antisemitist

No, I didn't accuse him of that. As I say, there's nothing like that in what I read, and wiki states that there are to be found explicit anti anti-semitic writings; but I haven't seen those either.

> prominent English translators, Walter Kaufmann

I don't trust the wiki article; I'm pretty sure it was mostly written by the pro-N side. My philosophy scholarship isn't anywhere near good enough, though, to know whether that's a fair assessment of WK, and nor do I intend to find out.

But I think there's a mechanism for bias: anyone who cares to read enough of N's stuff to publish on it is likely to be pro-N. Those who, like me, just think he's shallow and self-important aren't going to be motivated to dig any deeper.

wereatheist said...

I do very much think N. is self-important. He might well be the world-champion of self-importance. This does not make him shallow (it's somewhat 'orthogonal', don't you think?). But I'm not too much impressed by Mr. N.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

I was an anti-Nietzsche who was partially converted by reading some of his books. He is probably the best stylist of all the philosophers that I've read, and he is deliberately annoying in challenging lots of standard ideas, like Christianity, patriotism, and so on, but he's also a paradoxer, who is often deliberately obscure.

He broke with Wagner over the latter's anti-semitism, but his anti-semite sister edited many of his books after his insanity to insert her own prejudices.

I consider that his biggest mistake was his failure to properly appreciate Darwin.

William M. Connolley said...

> shallow (it's somewhat 'orthogonal'

It is orthogonal; I should have stuck with my earlier "incomprehensible". N is like a turbulent muddy stream; you cannot easily look to see if there is any depth; you have to put your hand in; if you get lucky you may find pearls; but then again you may just find stinking mud or cut yourself on junk. By contrast Hobbes, Smith et al. are calm and clear, and the depth is easily appreciated.

> partially converted

Maybe; you should blog one of the best.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

I'm probably a poor choice to defend Nietzsche, both because I don't know either him or philosophy well and because I profoundly disagree with him on some crucial points. I do think that he has been very influential, both for good and ill. I'm inclined to think that he was a great critic of both other philosophers and himself.

William M. Connolley said...

> he was a great critic

Indeed. Wiki tells me that "Nietzsche argues that he himself is a great philosopher because of his withering assessment of the pious fraud of the entirety of Philosophy". But I don't see that. There are various digs at various folk, but none of them are coherent; none of them could be called a reasoned argument against anyone else's philosophy. The obvious comparison is to something like TOSAIE, which does offer a sustained and reasoned critique of Plato, Hegel, Marx and the like. N cannot stand alongside that kind of work.

Unknown said...

Nietzsche was explicitly opposed to anti-Semitism, which featured into his break with Wagner, and which was not a particularly commonplace attitude at the time. Wikipedia backs me up on this.

My exposure to his writings is scant; my sister gave me "Beyond Good and Evil" when I was in high school, and I read "Thus Spake Zarathustra" some time thereafter; both, I think, were written about the same time. (I liked the first-mentioned better.) As a pragmatist, I find much of philosophy uncongenial, so, as a teen, Nietzsche's insouciance tended more to tickle than irritate me.