On 10/13/13 we recorded a discussion on Nietzche’s The Gay Science. Listen to the podcast. The work is a series of numbered aphorisms, and we read all of those excerpted for the popular Nietzsche anthologies:
Preface, 1-4, 7, 11, 26, 34, 54, 57-60, 72, 76, 78, 99, 107-113, 116-122, 124, 125, 127, 130, 140-143, 149, 151, 153-154, 163, 173, 174, 179, 184, 193, 200, 205, 228, 231, 232, 250, 258, 264-280, 283-285, 289, 290, 292, 301, 310, 312, 316, 319, 322, 324, 325, 327, 329, 332, 334, 335, 338, 339, 340-342, 343-347, 349, 352, 354-357, 359-361, 369, 370, 372-375, 377, 380, 381, 382.
These are divided into 5 “books,” the first four of which were published in 1882 as roughly the last and best of his “early” works. He then published the more famous Thus Spake Tharathustra and Beyond Good and Evil, and then republished The Gay Science in 1887 with Book 5 and the Preface tacked on. The Gay Science is where he introduces a lot of the ideas that he lays out in these other books, like the death of god, eternal recurrence, amor fati, and even Zarathustra himself.
While some parts really are aphoristic a la Heraclitus, with little pithy sayings like “196. Limits of our hearing. One hears only those questions for which one is able to find answers,” many of the entries are a page or more, especially in the very meaty added book 5. Even when they’re short, the sequencing usually seems quite intentional, with a theme–like the death of God that kicks off book 3–that is then developed over a longer section. Still, I like to think of Nietzsche as a blogger (just without the helpful constant feedback that blog comments give…) who would go where the spirit took him on a particular day, but who had a pretty circumscribed area of interest, and so kept returning for another kick at some of the same ideas.
A few themes that stand out:
1. A neo-Socratic picture of relentless inquiry, primarily into human psychology, but also into the mores of the day, and more generally the “zeitgeist.” There’s nothing “knee-jerk” about Nietzsche’s skepticism, as much of his energy goes into discovering, i.e. formulating, questions. It’s not until you can get to a position “beyond good and evil” that you can ask the question of the value of values (as touched on from a different angle in ep. 11. He doesn’t doubt the existence of truth so much as pry into the will to truth (a point we discussed in ep. 61).
2. As part of the point 1, what makes this science “gay” (not homosexual; the translation is older than the common use of that meaning, but subversively cheerful) is a refusal to accept the standards of stodgy academia. He considers scholars “the spiritual middle class” (from 373) and thinks that a good philosopher needs to be more light-footed (e.g. in considering various points of view), able to see things from a greater height (get the big picture, gain a new vantage), able to laugh at himself, and most of all overflowing with energy. At the same time, he makes it clear that this is not a frivolous rejection of science (and he doesn’t mean “natural science” here, but just science in the sense of an organized attempt at gathering knowledge), but a new model for doing what scholarship is supposed to do, which is… well, it could be “willing truth” but per point 1, the will to truth is itself explored. What’s really being exercised here is the philosopher’s “intellectual conscience.”
3. “God is dead” is for Nietzsche a simple reading of the zeitgeist: of philosophical history; one’s functioning intellectual conscience can no longer for him in the modern time take such an idea seriously. Instead of arguing the point (which he considers settled) he instead tries to feel out what that really means for the reevaluation of morality and everything else. So much of our language, our cultural practices, our “conscience,” our values operate in a framework born of theism, that an atheist needs to do some careful reexamination to find out what else goes when the God thesis goes.
4. Consciousness is overrated. Nietzsche was a main influence on Freud, though Nietzsche credits Leibniz (in 357) with the idea “what we call consciousness is only one part of our spiritual and psychic world.” What we “decide” (and think we do freely!) is only, for Nietzsche, a small, peripheral part of our motivation, and we are highly ignorant of ourselves and great at self-deception. This gives us the need for the self-examination in point #1 and constitutes its chief limitation. We can at best practice the partially examined life.
5. Energy/pessimism/geistism. Nietzsche’s cultural critique is perhaps the most tedious and archaic part of the book, what with his consideration of such questions (debated much in his locale) as “what is German?” Often in reaction to Schopenhauer, but also Wagner and others, he decries “Oriental” thought as death-seeking, “Jewish” thought as thoroughly judgmental and self-despising, and his own countrymen as gripped by a hopeless herd mentality. In all these cases (and his many offensive comments about women), we’re best off interpreting them as making comments about intellectual trends (thus my term “geistism”), which he then spots in various works of art and philosophers and people’s personalities. Whether or not specific people today (or then) actually fall into these tidy categories is beside the point for the purposes of getting something useful out of Nietzsche.
The upshot is his picture of overflowing health (which he here calls “Dionysian”), in contrast with the pessimism, escapism, asceticism, other-worldliness, and/or pretension of these other views being elements in the culture and in ourselves that he wants us to be vigilant against. But again, per #1, Nietzsche’s ethic is never a matter of just “be strong” or “be healthy” or “be vigilant” or any of that. All that greatly oversimplifies matters for Nietzsche, and it’s this demand for oversimplification, as well as certainty, social approval, a label for oneself, and other vices, that constitute violations of the intellectual conscience. This refusal to be pinned down to a digestible list of virtues or the like can make Nietzsche frustrating to read, like one of those “cool” people you’re trying to be cordial with but whose standards appear to shift such that it’s impossible for you not to fall short. It’s also what makes him easy to misunderstand, if you latch on to some particular point made in the text and take this for his ethic.
Luckily, we have Walter Kaufmann’s translation, which is not just a translation, but a blow-by-blow commentary; Kaufmann points out passages that are important for clearing up misconceptions or that fly in the face of common characterizations of Nietzsche, and also puts these themes as they come up into the perspective of his other books. For instance, he points out that “Dionysian” as used here as a positive force is not the same as its meaning in the earlier Birth of Tragedy (which we’ll have to cover in another episode).