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Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography
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46 of 50 people found the following review helpful
I would imagine that one of the toughest subjects for an author today would be Friedrich Nietzsche. Not so much in terms of difficulty, but in terms of previous output. There have been quite a few, to say the least, books on Nietzsche over the past few years. They seem to have left no stone unturned in their quest for material. There have appeared books on almost every aspect of Nietzsche's philosophy and life: Nietzsche as a young man, the later Nietzsche, Nietzsche and the Jews, Nietzsche's last days, Nietzsche and the Nazis, Nietzsche's influence on the French, English, the young, modern thought, what have you. There have even been biographies of Nietzsche's friends and family members. Where else is there left to go? It would seem that the vein of Nietzsche studies has been tapped dry.
Rudiger Safranski has managed to put an new and entertaining spin on things by giving the reader a philosophical biography of Nietzsche, focusing on the development of Nietzsche's ideas rather than his life. Rather than asking how Nietzsche's relationship with the Wagners affected his later life, Safranski asks how the relationship affected the development of Nietzsche's later ideas; which were developed, which were jettisoned and which would later emerge because of the realtionship.
Safranski's thesis is backed, as usual, with clear, concise writing free of the stifling style and jargon that has come to dominate Nietzschean studies. Safranski's style reminds one of Walter Kaufmann in the respect that he is writing for an intelligent public rather than fellow academics or students for whom this tome would be a required, and expensive textbook.
If you want a straightforward exposition of Nietzsche or just want to get to know this elusive philosopher better, you can't do better yourself than this book. Those more familiar with Nietzsche will not agree with everything Safranski writes, but that is part of the beauty of such as well-written book.
As someone involved in Nietzsche studies myself, I give this volume my highest recommendation for clarity and content.
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55 of 61 people found the following review helpful
"I mistrust all systematizers and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity."--Nietzsche, Aphorism #26 of "Maxims and Arrows," in TWILIGHT OF THE IDOLS (translated by Walter Kaufmann).
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) thought of his philosophical adventures as the explorations of a "Columbus of the spirit," a thinker who was an "attempter" or "experimenter" in the realms of wisdom and knowledge. He circled around and around a problem, seeking to gain perspectives on the "truth," boldly venturing into uncharted regions of a wild and restless sea "where there be dragons."

Although one finds certain key ideas in Nietzsche's philosophy--the death of God, the Ubermensch (overman), the eternal recurrence of the same, master morality vs. slave morality, and the will to power--one should not expect to find in his works a dogmatic system.
The "will to a system," he said, "is a lack of integrity." One cannot, nor should one try, to wrap the "world" (the universe or cosmos) in a neat rational package tied with the bow of certainty. Whoever claims to have done so is pathetically self-deceived.

In NIETZSCHE: A PHILOSOPHICAL BIOGRAPHY, Ruediger Safranski has written the most engaging exposition of the development of Nietzsche's thought since the late Walter Kaufmann's NIETZSCHE: PHILOSOPHER, PSYCHOLOGIST, ANTICHRIST (1950; Fourth Edition, 1974).

Born in Germany in 1945, Safranski is one of the most renowned scholars of German philosophy in the world. His previous books include SCHOPENHAUER AND THE WILD YEARS OF PHILOSOPHY (1991) and MARTIN HEIDEGGER: BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL (1998).

"We will never understand Nietzsche," writes Safranski, "if we do not realize that for him ideas possessed actual spiritual and physical reality on a par with passions. . . .Nietzsche's works as a whole are an extended chronicle of the complex events in an experiment to attain power over oneself."

As Walter Kaufmann, and now Ruediger Safranksi, clearly understand, Nietzsche was both a philosopher and a psychologist, a thinker who explored the genealogy of various philosophical, religious, and moral "prejudices" and did so as an "adventurer and circumnavigator of the inner world known as 'human.'"

Just as Immanuel Kant was awakened from his dogmatic slumbers by reading the skepticism of David Hume, and Nietzsche himself was jolted by his discovery of the pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer, so today we who read Nietzsche are challenged to reexamine and jettison our dogmatic certainties--to distrust, as he did, all systematizers and peddlers of "absolute truth."

Safranski's assessment of Nietzsche and his philosophy gives evidence not only of the biographer's keen intelligence but also of his mastery of the Nietzschean corpus. It is the best volume on the subject to appear in decades.
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40 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on August 16, 2002
�What meaning would our whole being have if it were not that in us that will to truth has become conscious of itself _as a problem_ within us?� --*On the Genealogy of Morals*
Nietzsche lived the life of an ascetic priest who tried to pull Dionysus *inward*, internalizing the Graeco-Gnostic night journey of transformative self-enhancement, lifelong psychic combat at the frontiers of metaphor and expression. There is so much rebellious kicking and thrashing in N.�s collected works, a witch�s wind of wild conjecture emanating from a chthonic whirlpool, that a long, embattled tradition of miscomprehension, accusation, and resentment was bound to ferment in its wake.... In the final year before his breakdown, N.�s landlady heard strange noises coming from his room, and sneaked upstairs to peek through the keyhole. The sight of N. dancing naked like the Hindu god Shiva, teetering on a ground-swell of hysteria, is a popular image (second only to that of a stonefaced, embittered loner pouring scorn on �the herd� from the separatist darkness of his cold rented room) that Rudiger Safranski aims to dignify, flesh out, qualify, and redact. In this regard, *Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography* is a boon and a delight, a sure-handed trump to all who doubt the centrality of N.�s thought (most American philosophy departments, monopolized by logicians of the �analytical� school, do not offer a course on Nietzsche).
Safranski�s biography hits hermeneutic pay-dirt, delivers all the important playlets and dramas of N.�s strange and embittered life, the byzantine reversals, the ascetic hardships, the wild years of thought-experiment and self-overcoming as this great thinker pioneered the course of non-analytic philosophy in the 20th century. N.�s passion for conjecture inspired him to structure his life so as to yield Dramatis Personae for thought, a vast cosmological theater of monstrous forces and sibylline potency blazing trails through psychology, aesthetics, philosophy of science, moral theory, and (most disastrously) politics. All philosophical thinking that measures its worth against the great Tolstoyan question �How should one live?� will ultimately circle back to Nietzsche.
Tactfully, Safranski skimps on the details, focusing on N.�s intellectual development, bringing anecdotal data to bear at strategic moments to help qualify the radical contradictions (and/or developmental reversals) of N.�s ever-flowing deluge of path-breaking insights. When the biographer gets his blood up, his pages glimmer with concise, penetrating analogies, quicksilver correspondences, and (most importantly) stark, evenhanded censure whenever N.�s blazing hubris gets ahead of itself, as in the notorious dogmatic triptych of Ubermensch, Eternal Recurrence, and Will to Power -- a thunderous, fulminating triad of doom-eager pomposity, the fulcrum of N.�s last-ditch hysterics and tragic mental collapse.
What moves this reader most (apart from Safranski�s sparkling analytic concordance) is the story of N.�s transformative self-dramatizing putting him further and further outside the loop of human relatedness (even as he penetrated deeper into the chthonic underside of morality, desire, and the historical formation of contingent knowledge-structures). The Nietzsche Syndrome has become an occupational hazard for all lonely, dejected, ego-intensive scholars -- a millstone of toxic self-importance contaminating interpersonal nuance and making the most routine human contact an act of heavy lifting. �I feel as though I am condemned to silence or tactful hypocrisy in my dealings with everybody.� The chapter focusing on N.�s anguished courtship of Lou Andreas-Salome� is powerfully instructive. Here we see the proud egomaniac so befuddled by his philosophic fantasies (and their ruthless misapplication) that the lonely human being fulminating at their center can no longer break bread with the rest of the species. �My soul was missing its skin, so to speak, and all natural protections.� N.�s failure to heed Zarathustra�s doctrine that disciples should abandon their teachers as soon as they have �found� their teachings brought N. �to the brink of insanity�(253) in his yearning for Salome�, who, once she understood him, left N.�s side for new intellectual horizons. (In an unsent letter, anguished love-trauma turns to squalid, adolescent rancor: �This scrawny dirty smelly monkey with her fake breasts -- a disaster!�) N. had put so much of himself into speculative thought that the intricate eroto-politicking of courtship and love had become flat-out culture-shock, a strange netherworld of alien ritual and occult formality (exacerbated by a string of spontaneous marriage-proposals to various women during periods of depression and self-doubt).
N.�s corpus of thought became, in many respects, a resentful war-machine geared to take imaginary revenge on the European culture that ignored his writings (while he lived), rebuffed his passion for radical redirection and reform, and refused to validate his Ubermenschian self-image as apocalyptic cultural messiah. We all know the story of N.�s betrayal of his earlier anti-essentialism for �the will to power,� his grasping for the brass ring of Metaphysics, for the Type A theoretical entity that would circumnavigate and contain the Universe in its pan-relational sightlines. As Safranski notes, Heidegger would condemn the Nietzschean will-to-power as the last metaphysical gasp of a resentful philosophic priest (an allegation that would close the karmic circle via Derrida�s critique of Heidegger�s *own* late theorizing). N. was a new Prometheus who sought to reclaim the religious creativity of the Graeco-Christian world and restructure the soul of humanity with a renewed spiritual vigor (played against a neo-Darwinist backdrop of cold-water atheism to keep thinking �grounded� in a steely empirical pragmatism). Safranski�s text conflates every major biographical and critical analysis into a compact, razorbacked, 400-page monster head-trip written to challenge, delight, amuse, and inspire all comers. His suspenseful and compelling portrait reminds us all of why we got into philosophy in the first place.
This is a restorative text, a ritual reminder of philosophy�s manifold glories and fallibilities, and a meal served in flames.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on November 8, 2010
Safranski's treatment of Nietzsche's life is, as the subtitle indicates, predominately a philosophical biography. As such, speculations regarding Nietzsche's love interests, or details pertaining to the causes of his mental collapse and behavior during the subsequent decade leading up to his eventual death, remain sparse and are left largely unexplored. The reader who is looking for insight into these themes will be disappointed with this book. That said, what actually makes it into the book is admirably balanced and thorough, and gives an excellent chronological account of the development of Nietzsche's thought as it related to his life. From his early work in philology and his engagement with the works of Schopenhauer and Wagner, to his later developments and semi-obsession with ideas like the eternal recurrence, Ubermensch and will to power, Safranski does a fantastic job of contextualizing Nietzsche's thought with the intellectual trends of his day. One gets a strong sense that although many of Nietzsche's ideas may have been selectively appropriated by a variety of crowds for some esoteric and less that respectable purposes, his trajectory stood alone and he likely never would have aligned himself with any sort of organized group or systematic philosophy -- a true wanderer and pillar unto himself.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on May 23, 2013
i was at first enthusiastic about safranski's literate and flowing biography of nietzsche, but became increasingly dissatisfied with it as i went along. the fundamental problem is that safranski grants himself the liberties of a literary stylist while tackling the explanation of difficult philosophical texts. this strategy is hardly unusual in european philosophy but will create problems for the empirically minded american reader.

the crux is safranski's weakness for muddling citation with interpretation. he typically begins and ends a two or three paragraph passage with a definite quotation or reference, but in between spins out an interpretative elaboration in which the distinction between what nietzsche wrote and what safranski believes nietzsche meant is completely blurred. thus, nietzsche is directly quoted as wanting to "move human knowledge forward" at the top of p.157, and at the bottom of the page as believing that "myths ... now struck him as mystifications that would need to be combatted." but that claim is unreferenced. where did nietzsche write that? or is that safranski's inference from several passages, and if so, which ones?

safranski's expositions of background material often lack gist, mostly because he prefers to talk in generalities or abstractions rather than specifics. it's interesting to learn of the precedents in max stirner's philosophy (pp.125-131), but we don't get a clear statement of what stirner advocated. we're airily told that stirner was a "radical nominalist" and believed "thinking is creativity", not that he repudiated all social norms and most social relations -- including marriage and keeping promises, and even keeping promises to oneself. we hear that germans thought stirner was "scandalous or crazy" and that nietzsche was coy about mentioning him, without the context that stirner's ideas were by then associated with anarchism (the 19th century equivalent to our terrorism). we get stylish summary verdicts such as "stirner was bent on disclosure; nietzsche, on advancement" ... but really, what does that mean?

the chronology at the end is helpful, and the index is very detailed. quotations are carefully referenced, although about half of the unquoted citations are to the colli & montinari complete german edition, indicated only as (volume,page) which obscures which diary, note or draft is being referred to, and leaves open how accurately quoted or apposite the citation may be. (as a check, the direct quotations from nietzsche's books are accurately referenced, but many citations without direct quotation are used to support safranski's interpretive arcs.) and there are several phrases, such as "the natural cruelty of things", that are quoted across so many different contexts that their original meaning becomes blurred.

safranski's "intellectual biography" is not a book to disparage outright: his narrative is enjoyable and his insights occasionally intriguing. the challenge to find the line of development within nietzsche's texts and letters is enormous, and nietzsche is a complex thinker who evolved rapidly and inconsistently. he was also intentionally provocative and adversarial, much like socrates, and as with socrates it is difficult to identify his core beliefs behind the polemical critiques.

but with safranski the blurring of opinion and fact, citation and interpretation, style and substance is encountered far too often, and eventually one must read him closely and with caution. we work continually to separate safranski's beliefs from nietzsche's, and winnow the chaff of style and interpretation to retrieve the reliable grains of fact.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on November 10, 2013
This book took some time to read. The last few weeks I have been reading a lot on Nietzsche and this book took the longest to get through. This book is not meant to be a weekend read, this is a heavier read and should be read in a slower manner. He brings up a lot of information about the life and works of Nietzsche and how they intersected together. For the type of book this is, this is a highly recommended book to have on your bookshelf.

If one is interested in a biography and wants to know what his works are and what they are about, this is the book to get. It is a great introduction to both at the same time.

The life of Nietzsche is very well document by many authors, so if you have read a lot of bio's on Nietzsche, and tend to get bored with hearing or reading the same info over and over again, this might not be the book for you. If you are interested in Nietzsche and want to have a good overview of his life and works, this is the book to pick up. Those who are familiar with Nietzsche, this book does source some material not found, as I understand it, in the English community. So you might find some gems here.

As far as I am concerned, this is one of the most detailed books on his life and his works together. I was hoping to read "Nietzsche" by Lou Salome and contrast the two books, but I have yet to get to that point.
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 6, 2003
To truly understand a philosopher/philosophy, one must understand the context within which that philosopher developed.
Rudiger Safranski does an excellent job of both describing Nietzsche's environments as well as distilling the esentials of his philosophy. Way too many people have mis-stated the Nietzsche message - this is an excellent source to determine what the 'valuable' message is for you.
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on May 23, 2008
Safranski has made a name for himself in Germany as biographer of Schiller, Hoffmann, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, and with a recent bestseller about the German Romantic School, which comprised poetry, painting, and music. But his main triumph and commercial success was this book about Nietzsche.
Oddly, it is not a biography, nor an introduction into FN's thinking, but a 'biography of his thinking', a concept which is inadequately translated in the English subtitle: I do not think that this book can be called a 'philosophical biography'. What is that anyway?
It is a very readable book, unless you know zero about the man. In that case, better go elsewhere first. It is well worth reading if you are fairly familiar with the idea map of ancestors and successors and the main writings. It helps establish mental links and puts you on firmer ground.
FN was one of the most influential writers in the decades around 1900, the year of his death. By that time he had been in 'mental care' for 11 years. Some said of him, he had delved into the mysteries of life so deeply that he went mad. His philosophy has been called a philosophy of life in opposition to materialism and historicism and other -isms. His Zarathustra was one of the 3 most carried books by German soldiers in WW1, says Safranski. The other two were Goethe's Faust and the New Testament. But I wish I knew how this statistic was obtained. Part of the Nietzsche myth?
His ancestors, the triad of 'educators' if you wish, were the poet Hoelderlin, who shared the fate of ending his life in a lengthy asylum phase, having 'gone mad' as well, who provided the background of craving for mythology; then Schopenhauer, whose 'Will and Representation' became FN's philosophical backbone and became transformed into the concepts of Dionysos and Apollo; and finally Wagner, the composer in search of the German myth.
When he became unable to handle his life, his evil sister took care of him and established his reputation as a German national chauvinist, a militarist, and a racist. The Nazis actually knew better, one of theirs wrote somewhere, says Safranski: apart from the fact that he was anti nationalist, anti socialist, and anti racist, he might be useful for Nazi propaganda.
Personally I like to see FN as a poet and an aphorist; his philosophy does not seem to add up to a system, so better take your bits and pieces as you like them.
I give only four stars, because I think the concept of the book has limited value. I would prefer a more stringent focus on either life or philosophy. As it is, the text somewhat vacilates. It can't make up its mind. Like its subject.
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 25, 2003
Since it is impossible to separate Nietzsche's life from his philosophy, Safranski doesn't even try.
This is the best book on Nietzsche and his philosophy I've ever read.
Why? Because instead of trying to explain N's complicated philosophical ideas all by themselves (which invariably leads to many footnotes about N's life to try and clarify them), Safranski explains the evolution of N's philosophy along with his life. You cannot help but understand it in this way.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 2010
How should we take Nietzsche? As a talented megalomaniac? As an exclamation point for lesser philophers? As an excuse for fascism and militarism, like Darwin? As a poster child for the perils of engaging in unsafe sex? As author Rudiger Safranski makes clear, Nietsche's desire to both systematize his thinking and scorn systemization caused some parts of his oeuvre to be contradictory and irreconcilable to other parts. There is therefore no "way" to take him other than ad hoc. I love this study of Nietzsche much more than I love the man's philosophy. Safranski provides a detailed portrait of Nietzsche along with an explanation of the philosophical waters that Nietzsche swam in and which he later channeled for others, mainly for ill.

Another reader complained that the book is dense and difficult to read. That's true. Anytime the word "ontological" appears in a book, let alone is discussed, it can't be otherwise. That said, for an amateur reader of western philosophy with a basic level of knowledge, it's quiet readable, if not always 100% intelligible.
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