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In his biography of the prominent nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist, American author and professor Peter Berkowitz offers deep readings of the philosopher's most-read works in an effort to counter what he considers overly simplistic views of Nietzsche's philosophy—namely that a direct line can be drawn from Nietzsche's views of morality and human achievement to the atrocities of the Nazi Party.
Born to a Lutheran pastor and his wife in 1844, Nietzsche grew up in a small town outside Leipzig. His father died just five years later. Because he was an orphan whose father had been a state pastor, in 1858, Nietzsche was admitted to a top-tier school known as Schulpforta, despite having only average grades. After graduating in 1864, Nietzsche enrolled at the University of Bonn, majoring in theology and classical philology (the study and criticism of language in historical sources). Here, Nietzsche was strongly influenced by Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity, which helped convince him that God was a fiction created by man, and by the research on evolution conducted by Charles Darwin.
After a stint in the military, Nietzsche published his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, in 1872. While it is nominally a work of literary and historical criticism, even at this early stage, Berkowitz asserts, many aspects of Nietzsche's later philosophy are revealed fully formed. For example, Nietzsche looks to the great tragedians of Ancient Greece, like Aeschylus and Sophocles, viewing their focus on human suffering not as a form of pessimism or nihilism, but rather, as a vehicle for achieving an understanding of the human condition that is in itself a joyous thing. Meanwhile, Nietzsche is contemptuous of later Greek writers such as Euripides and, especially, the Aristotelian school of thought for bringing rationality to bear on all parts of human existence, thus threatening to destroy the potential for an understanding of humanity that must and does transcend human logic.
Over the next decade, Nietzsche wrote a number of books and essays that are considered major works, including Human, All Too Human (1878). This, Berkowitz contends, was another important step for Nietzsche in terms of developing a theory of existence that is divorced from the simple pessimism or nihilism of fellow prominent German intellectuals of the time, including Arthur Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner, the controversial composer and polemicist with whom Nietzsche had a close friendship with up until around this time. Human, All Too Human is also the first of Nietzsche's works to be written largely in "aphorisms" of varying length, as opposed to a more traditional essay form. Berkowitz professes that Nietzsche's aphorisms, which could be considered "one-liners," have alienated numerous late twentieth century thinkers, particularly those from the school of postmodernism because postmodernists are highly skeptical of anything that presents itself as a "universal truth." An example of one of Nietzsche's most famous aphorisms is, "What does not kill me, makes me stronger." However, Berkowitz maintains postmodernists miss many of the subtleties of these aphorisms by rejecting them outright.
This is especially true, Berkowitz holds, because Nietzsche's own philosophical view, known as Perspectivism, also rejects the idea of universal truth. Developed largely in Nietzsche's most famous work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Perspectivism argues that the death of God means there is no more objective truth; all truths are conditional and contingent on a being's perspective. This also means that various laws—natural laws, civic laws, and perhaps most importantly, moral laws—must constantly be reevaluated and reassessed over time. Berkowitz points out, however, that just because Nietzsche doesn't value one moral code over another, this does not mean that moral codes are meaningless. Rather, Nietzsche says that the mere fact that a community decides to will a code of morals or ethics into existence is a key part of what makes humanity special.
In Nietzsche's theory of Perspectivism, Berkowitz views a celebration of creativity and the creative life, which are necessary for individuals and communities to develop these codes of ethics. In this sense, Berkowitz also views what he terms less an "immorality" on Nietzsche's part than a "counter-morality" which seeks to bring each individual closer to living her "best life." From this perspective, the Nazi Party's embrace of Nietzschean philosophy is seen as a fallacy that picks and chooses certain aspects of Nietzsche's philosophy in order to justify atrocities on the basis that there is no morality.
Ironically, Berkowitz comes full circle in discussing Nietzsche's relationship with Socratic and Aristotelian thought. On the one hand, Nietzsche's work was vigorously anti-Aristotelian in that it often rejected a sense of absolute rationality as readily as it rejected an absolute God. On the other hand, Berkowitz views Nietzsche as a great inheritor of the Socratic method, in which it is the questioning that matters. In accepting that moral codes are not absolute, Berkowitz opines, we might be able to better those codes to create more fulfilling lives for ourselves.