Preface and Acknowledgments

I think the best way to indicate the point of view from which this book was written would be to tell something, very briefly, of its history and pre-history.

When I first bought a copy of The Portable Nietzsche in a suburban bookstore in 1964, I had no idea that most Americans who were professionally qualified to hold an opinion on the subject thought at the time that Nietzsche was at best a very marginal philosopher. I doubt that I even knew that there are fads and fashions in philosophy as in everything else. This particular fashion would not have impressed me much because, within days after I first began to read him, and for my first few years in college, I was more or less immersed in what I took to be Nietzsche's view of the world. While other students, elsewhere on campus, were arguing about whether they could have solidarity with the orthodox Trotskyites, my friends and I were sitting up nights arguing about whether the Übermensch would ever vote or get married. It is easy to make such concerns sound foolish (as I think I just did), but I am sure that most of the effects Nietzsche had on us were beneficial. Mainly, we derived from him, by a sort of psychic contagion, a love of integrity (if not integrity itself -- there is a limit to what one can get from an author) and that touch of arrogance without which a consistent dedication to goals over the long haul seems to be impossible.

Nietzsche's writings were a source of insight and encouragement. They were certainly not, as Henry Miller would say, mere "literature." One attitude I picked up from Nietzsche became more important than any other as I studied philosophy in the years that followed. From him I got the impression that the most interesting questions of ethics cannot be answered by formulating rules that tell us what we must do. He convinced me that these questions can only be answered by somehow giving an account of the life of the individual as a whole: they are about character, a subject which includes the thoughts and passions of living human beings, and not merely their behavior. This impression of mine was later deepened and fixed when I first read Aristotle. Unfortunately, such questions were seldom being discussed in the professional journals at the time, as far as I could tell. Indeed, most of the things I found interesting were not considered "current" or "hot" issues among the people around me. This untimeliness, for which Nietzsche must take much of the blame, caused some problems for me. The most serious problem had to do with the fact that, as far as I knew at the time, contemporary philosophers were using their impressive analytical tools to solve problems that did not feel very important to me. I had a hard time seeing how the things that did matter to me the most could be written about with a degree of clarity and rigor that contemporary philosophers -- and I myself, for that matter -- would find respectable. It was obvious, though, that the great philosophers of the past had, in a variety of antique methods and styles, treated the issues that were important to me and had done so at great length. Having no other easy way out, I took the (for me) somewhat cowardly expedient of studying almost nothing but the history of philosophy while I was a student. If I could not figure out how to talk about what seemed important, at least I could talk about what various other people thought about such things. When I first began to discuss these matters in my own behalf, it was with a good deal of help from Nietzsche. At one point in my career as a graduate student, I was expected to submit a paper to my department which, if it passed, would qualify me for candidacy for the Ph.D. I had recently written a seminar paper which was a commentary on the chapter called "On the Gift-Giving Virtue" in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and it occurred to me that I could defend what I took Nietzsche was saying there, using the methods of the ordinary language philosophy which was then fashionable among the people around me, if I rather arbitrarily interpreted what he was saying as an account of the virtue that we ordinarily call generosity. I rewrote the old paper as a piece of first-person philosophy, moving the reference to Nietzsche into footnotes.1 The result seemed successful enough to me to justify trying to write a dissertation in which I would produce a theory of the virtues and of traits of character in general and, eventually, that is what I did. In these researches I soon found myself wandering out of the Nietzschean fold. I developed a position which was more influenced by Aristotle -- and even by Kant (something I would have found horrifying a few years earlier) -- than by Nietzsche. Mainly, I found myself laying much more stress on the value of the intellect and acting on principle than Nietzsche does. After working on these ideas and others that are closely related to them for some years, I began (for reasons I needn't go into here) to entertain the possibility of explaining the basic principles of justice as a sort of order which tends to arise spontaneously among free individuals who interact within certain very minimal constraints: perhaps a certain valuable part of morality an be understood as a product of freedom. I remembered that Nietzsche is generally very skeptical of the sorts of order which arise spontaneously among people, particularly in the moral realm. It seemed a good idea to go back to Nietzsche and see if he had anything to say which could dissuade me from doing what I was thinking of doing. At the same time, I thought I should try to sort out, in a general sort of way, the ethical ideas of my former master, to see if I was justified in my denial of him. I wanted to see how much of him I should deny and how much I should accept after all. You see the result of this attempt in the pages that follow. I have come out of this general sorting out with the following conclusions. It is clear to me that there are certain Nietzschean ideas which I am, at any rate, committed to denying. These include his devaluation of the intellect, his attempt to formulate an ethic which is entirely based on a conception of character, and his denial (at least in certain moods) of the value of spontaneous order. But there are other ideas of his -- including his relativism, his experimentalism, and his emphasis on the role the passions play in virtue -- which seem to me to be valuable and important. In fact they bring to light aspects of the truth which are insufficiently acknowledged in my own earlier work. Further, I have also found that the ideas in the latter group tend to logically undermine those in the former one. While some of Nietzsche's ideas seem ultimately unacceptable to me, I think some interesting explanations of why they are unacceptable can be found in Nietzsche's own writings. I have come out of my re-evaluation of Nietzsche encouraged but also chastened and (I hope) enlightened. Implicit in the story I have just told are some caveats and disclaimers which probably have to be made explicit. First, this book is mainly an attempt to take Nietzsche seriously as a contributor to the ethics of character. The point of view taken here is not primarily antiquarian. It is meant for readers who want to use Nietzsche as a source of insight in ethical and political matters. For this reason, I suspect that there are features of this book which might seem odd to someone whose interest in Nietzsche is mainly scholarly. The approach to Nietzsche that seems to be currently in vogue in the Nietzsche literature -- especially among French and French-influenced scholars -- is to focus on his metaphysics (or his rejection of metaphysics, depending on one's interpretation) and his epistemology (or whatever one should call his "perspectivism" and related themes); his ethics is often treated as an application or illustration of these themes, and his politics is typically not treated at all. Here, of course, my focus is entirely on ethical and political matters. Other themes are brought in only when they really seem necessary for an understanding of my central concerns. I suspect that some would say that a discussion of Nietzsche's ethics which is not accompanied by a sustained and detailed discussion of other supposedly more fundamental themes will seriously distort his ethical views. The only reply I can give them is to offer my own project as an experiment in which that hypothesis is tested. I think the experiment shows the hypothesis to be false. Nietzsche's ethical and political philosophy turns out to be, at any rate, more autonomous than this hypothesis implies.

The peculiar focus of this book requires me to deviate from standard practice in another way. It is typical of writers on Nietzsche nowadays to pay but scant attention to his earliest writings -- to the whole first decade of his literary output, in fact. This is not at all what I propose to do. Whether this practice makes any sense at all depends on which Nietzschean themes one is dealing with. If the subject is epistemology, it is one which seems to have interested Nietzsche most at the end of his career. It is at least conceivable that all the really interesting texts are from his last few years. If one ignores his earliest remarks on the subject -- which do tend to be rather crude -- one might perhaps not be missing much. But the situation is entirely different if the subject is ethical or political. In the Untimely Meditations he is already taking great pains to understand issues of this kind and producing original results. If we leave these writings out of our account, we are missing too much that is interesting and worth thinking about. Further, we are apt to misunderstand or underemphasize some important aspects of Nietzsche's thinking on ethical and political matters. The Meditationon Schopenhauer contains his only sustained and explicit critique of spontaneous order. Important parts of his later work simply assume the conclusion he reaches there, as if he has treated the subject once and for all. If we miss what he has said there, we are liable systematically to miss his point later on.

More generally, I think there is an obvious sort of value in knowing where Nietzsche's thinking begins, despite the well-known fact that he undergoes a strong and continuous intellectual development and eventually abandons his early views on some important subjects. For instance, where he does change his mind it might be very illuminating to find out why he felt compelled to do so. The greater the change is, the stronger the intellectual force which must have brought it about and, consequently, the more important it will be to know that it was a change.

There is one last caveat which is perhaps obvious from what I have already said. This book is not by any means an introduction to Nietzsche or his ethics. Those who try to use it as such are liable merely to find if confusing. I have to assume that the reader is familiar with some of Nietzsche's works and has done some reading in the secondary literature. To those who do need an introduction, I can recommend Morgan's What Nietzsche Means, which is still serviceable despite the fact that it was written half a century ago.

This is an appropriate place to acknowledge a general sort of debt to a professor of mine, the Heidegger scholar William B. Macomber. I have recently realized all over again what an impact he had on my approach to Nietzsche and my conception of teaching as well. If he had not fallen a victim to the tenure massacres of the middle 'seventies he would have influenced a whole generation of scholars and teachers by now.