A Moratorium on ‘Public Intellectuals’ Opining About Nietzsche?

Might we declare a moratorium on “public intellectuals” with no relevant scholarly competence opining about Nietzsche? The latest to embarrass himself is John Gray in the pages of the New Statesman. While Gray (on the Politics Faculty at the London School of Economics) may be most notorious among philosophers for his spectacular hostility towards John Rawls, it seems, on the evidence of this review, that he may be more qualified to talk about Rawls than Nietzsche. The parade of errors packed in to just a couple thousand words is quite remarkable; I’ll single out just five examples, ones that suitably betray the breadth and depth of Professor Gray’s ignorance of the subject matter:

(1) Professor Gray says the “aim” of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality “was to consider what became of morality once its support in religion was taken away.” One would had to have not actually read the book to describe that as its aim, and not only because Nietzsche specifically denies (GM II: 21) that the absence of religious faith would have any impact on the moralized guilty conscience of we moderns. The book’s aim, as Nietzsche himself says, is to contribute to a critique of morality, and to do so by examining the various psychological mechanisms (ressentiment, internalized cruelty, and the desire for feelings of power) that account for its development into its modern form.

(2) Professor Gray notes, correctly, that “Nietzsche’s prinicpal achievment as a thinker lies in his contributions to moral psychology,” but then describes that achievement as “developing the introspective method of French moralists such as La Rochefoucauld and Chamfort [in order to] analyse[] and unmask[] the Christian virtues, showing them to be sublimations of other, often “immoral” passions.” It is true enough Nietzsche sometimes employs the method of La Rochefoucauld on this score, but it is equally true, and more important, that he specifically distinguishes (Dawn 103) La Rochefoucauld’s approach to morality from his own. The significance of that is nowhere in evidence in Professor Gray’s presentation.

(3) Professor Gray says Nietzsche’s “natural mode of expression was the aphorism.” Perhaps, depending on what “natural” means, but it was not his primary mode of expression, as Alexander Nehamas correctly emphasized twenty years ago in calling attention to Nietzsche’s multiple styles and rhetorical devices. If the “aphorism” was, in fact, his “natural mode of expression,” it is surely odd that it almost completely ceases to be his mode of expression in his final, major works: On the Genealogy of Morality, Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, Ecce Homo. Were these works “unnatural”? What would that even mean?

(4) According to Professor Gray:

Nietzsche rejected his first mentor, Schopenhauer, claiming that the latter was too much influenced by Christianity. In truth, Schopenhauer turned his back on Christianity more decisively than Nietzsche ever did, and it was partly for this reason that Nietzsche was compelled to break with him. For Schopenhauer, deeply soaked in Indian philosophy, it was self-evident that – contrary to the secular version of the Christian belief in providence propagated by Hegel – history as a whole is without meaning. If there is such a thing as salvation, it lies outside time, and presupposes shedding the illusion of personal identity. For Nietzsche, as for anyone who retains the humanist faith bequeathed to the world by Christianity, this vision of human life was intolerable.

It would be hard to imagine what text Professor Gray thinks could be cited on behalf of ascribing the views in question to Nietzsche. Nietzsche certainly did not think history had a meaning, and he recognized, correctly, that Schopenhauer shared with Christianity and Buddhism the view that human suffering presented a fundamental objection to and problem for existence in this world. It was in Nietzsche’s revaluation of this attitude towards suffering that Nietzsche broke decisively with Schopenhauer and Christianity–points that are well-explicated in Bernard Reginster’s forthcoming Harvard U Press book on Nietzsche (which I recently had the pleasure of refereeing and which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the issues that Gray is mangling here).

(5) Professor Gray, however, is attached to his distinctive idea, and so concludes:

Like innumerable, less reflective humanists who came after him, Nietzsche wished to hold on to an essentially Christian view of the human subject while dropping the transcendental beliefs that alone support it.

A “Christian view of the human subject”? Nietzsche denies that people’s wills are causal, that they have free will or choice, and that they are morally responsible for their actions, and he claims that their conscious life is a largely epiphenomenal manifestation of their unconscious lives and their physical natures. Which teachings of Christianity on the subject does Professor Gray think shares these views? (There may be an answer here, though it is evident from what Gray says he is not thinking of this particular possibility: namely, aspects of Lutheranism, which Nietzsche knew intimately. That is a scholarly topic that still awaits thorough treatment, and even then I expect we will find that the similarities are not as extensive as might first seem. In any case, it is clear Nietzsche himself thought of his view of the subject as a repudiation of the Christian one, which, for most major Christian denominations, it plainly is.) Professor Gray continues:

It was this impulse to salvage a religious conception of humankind, I believe, that animated Nietzsche’s attempt to construct a new mythology. The task set by Nietzsche for his imaginary Superman was to confer meaning on history through a redemptive act of will. The sorry history of the species, lacking purpose or sense until a higher form of humanity came on to the scene, would then be redeemed. In truth, Nietzsche’s mythology is no more than the Christian view of history stated in idiosyncratic terms, and a banal version of it underpins nearly all subsequent varieties of secular thought.

Unfortunately for Professor Gray, the “imaginary Superman” never appears again in Nietzsche’s corpus after Thus Spoke Zarathustra, except briefly in Ecce Homo when Nietzsche discusses the former book. That means the “imaginary Superman” and his “mythology” Professor Gray presents as central to Nietzsche’s thinking, in fact, plays no role in any of his major mature works: Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morality, Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist. (It is not a significant presence in earlier works either, but we’ll leave that aside for purposes here.) It plays the role it does in Zarathustra precisely because–as Professor Gray apparently doesn’t recognize–that book is a parody of The New Testament, with Zarathustra preaching an anti-Christian gospel. That the requirements of the parodic form dictate the construation of an anti-Christian mythology for paralellism with the Christian mythology Nietzsche rejects simply doesn’t show, in the absence of further textual evidence, that Professor Gray’s ascription to Nietzsche of a Christian view of history is correct. In fact, the crucial issue, as noted above (and as is well-explicated by Reginster), is the revaluation of the Christian attitude towards suffering. That central theme, somewhat remarkably, never captures Professor Gray’s attention.

At one point in his review, Professor Gray says, “It is received wisdom among philosophers that writers such as Nietzsche are best understood by breaking down their thought into a number of discrete propositions and arguments. Of dubious value in the history of ideas [where lack of argument is preferred???], this conventional methodology is completely inept when applied to Nietzsche.” In fact, of course, Professor Gray’s wide-ranging confusions illustrate the opposite. Perhaps if he tried to tie his discrete propositions to actual texts of Nietzsche’s, and had actually paid any attention to Nietzsche’s many arguments, he might have managed to make fewer errors in so little space.

This article first appeared on The Leiter Report March 14 and is republished here by permission. Brian Leiter is Joseph D. Jamail Centennial Chair in Law, Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Law & Philosophy Program at the University of Texas at Austin. The Leiter Report is here.

Comments are closed.