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SHILO BROOKS: Welcome back to the Free Mind Podcast where we discuss philosophic and political ideas with adventurous disregard for intellectual trends. I'm Shilo Brooks from the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. 

I’m joined today by Jeremy Fortier, Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the City College of New York. Jeremy is the author of the 2020 book The Challenge of Nietzsche, published by the University of Chicago Press. Our conversation today explores the thought and writings of 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. We discuss Nietzsche’s popular appeal, his complicated legacy, his criticism of the Western Tradition, his style of writing, and the basic problems his philosophy confronts.    

SHILO BROOKS: Jeremy Fortier, welcome to the Free Mind podcast.

JEREMY FORTIER: Thank you for having me.

SHILO BROOKS: I thought I would have you on for the following reason, this is going to be a slightly self-indulgent episode. You have recently written a book called The Challenge of Nietzsche. And I wrote a book called Nietzsche's Culture War. And we're both interested in Nietzsche. You wrote on the older Nietzsche, I wrote on the younger Nietzsche, and we were talking before we started recording. I was immediately attracted to Nietzsche in my youth. You had some resistance to him. So I feel like we bring a lot of perspectives to the question of who Nietzsche was. So why don't we start, for folks who have never read Nietzsche, maybe heard this name, but don't really know much about him. Who was Nietzsche?

JEREMY FORTIER: Well, Nietzsche was completely obscure during his life or very obscure for most of his life. And subsequently became pretty much the best selling philosopher in history and pretty much one of the best selling authors in history. Well let's do a short rundown of that. So Nietzsche was a German. Actually I'm not going to remember the exact year that he was born, but his career as-


JEREMY FORTIER: Good. Good, good, good. 1884. Began his life in the German education system as part of the kind of elite part of the German education system. Became a very young tenured professor I think at the age of 24 at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Trained as a philologist, which just means a scholar of the classical world. Did not fit in there very well. And so kind of happily retired partly due to health reasons and partly because he wasn't fitting in very well as a philologist. Therefore, had a small pension and spent the remainder of the next couple decades of his life traveling around different parts of Europe, especially in Switzerland and Italy, a little bit in Southern France. Writing books that almost no one bought. He had to self-publish them.

Towards the end of his life, he suffers a mental collapse. He was institutionalized for the last ten years of his life. During that time he suddenly becomes one of the most popular authors in Europe. After his death, which I believe is the year 1900, after his death he goes from being widely read to probably the most famous names in all of Europe. Becoming very closely associated with a lot of German politicians, and German militarism, to be blunt about it, and that goes both through the First World War and the Second World War. And so Nietzsche goes on to be both one of the most widely read and one of the most notorious, in both good and bad ways, philosophers and authors in the modern age and perhaps any age.

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. We need to talk about a lot that you just said. So you mentioned he's one of the most popular philosophers, went from obscurity to popularity quickly, that he became one of the most sort of notorious philosophers, but one thing that stuck with me with respect to what you said was when we talk about Nietzsche we talk about how your reaction to him is usually either sort of immediately positive or immediately negative. There's not much of an in between. People aren't undecided or neutral toward Nietzsche. And so I wanted to ask you, you know, what was it, because as I understand it, you were initially somewhat resistant to Nietzsche. Whereas I was initially electrified by him and he has this effect on young people in particular one way or the other. And so what do you think it is about Nietzsche, and you can take yourself as an example, that elicits either an immediately positive or immediately negative reaction? What's the character of his writing such that it does it?

JEREMY FORTIER: So, yeah. The first thing to say is that he's a really exceptional writer and I think there's no doubt that he's not just one of the best writers among philosophers. He's one of the most gripping writers period, in pretty much any language. But his writing, particularly some of the later works, which is what I first encountered as an undergraduate student, have this character of having a very extreme and somewhat hyperbolic rhetoric. And so for me as a student what made me resist Nietzsche and really not actually want to continue reading him, I encountered him in one of your standard introductory history of political philosophy courses. We read a little bit at the end of that course. And what made me resist him was that I didn't understand the seeming hyperbole almost bordering on hysteria. And that's what I resisted was, I wasn't sure, I think as someone said, it's like Nietzsche is shouting in his writing.

It's like you know it's very good writing. You can tell it's really gripping and great phrases and all that, but it's like he's shouting and I couldn't understand, "Well, why is this guy shouting at me? I don't really want to shout back." So that's what made me resist him and I suspect that's true of others as well. It's the seeming extremism or hyperbole hysteria. You can recognize that he's a great writer, but it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea at first.

SHILO BROOKS: Right. And so you warmed up to him though. And I would say the things that Jeremy just said, I agree with, although the sensationalizing rhetoric of Nietzsche, rather than turning me off, would turn me on.

I wanted to gobble that up. I'd never heard anyone talk like that. And so it can have both effects perhaps depending on the disposition of the reader, but I'm interested in your case because eventually you came around to him and I'm curious what it is in his thought or what it was about his thought that made you come around and say, "You know what? This guy's shouting, but it's actually worth listening to."

JEREMY FORTIER: Yeah. So Nietzsche, it's interesting. He has a letter where he said to a correspondent, "It's no trick to find me, but it's difficult to lose me." Right. And I think that's really true once I had this negative reaction. I wound up though taking a seminar on Nietzsche almost against my will. It was taught by a professor that I liked. I had taken other courses from him. So I was going to take them, I just was sort of committed to taking more courses from him. I was disappointed when he decided to teach Nietzsche one semester, but I wound up spending a semester on Nietzsche. And what impressed me as we worked through it and we went through one book of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, we went through it in real detail almost line by line. What impressed me is, I spent a lot of time on it, was that I realized that underneath all this kind of bombast and seeming hysteria, Nietzsche not only qualifies some of his major claims, but there's a lot of self-criticism and even self-doubt.

So that really intrigued me once I realized that because I realized on the one hand, you have this guy who's willing to kind of shout and boast and seems so grandiose and insults almost everyone and make a spectacle of himself, but then when you read it and you get under sort of the surface of it, there's a lot of self-criticism, self-reflection, self-doubt. So that intrigued me was thinking about, "How do these two things fit together, particularly because with a lot of authors it might be the reverse." I was more used to authors who are more qualified on the surface and underneath that a philosopher might be a bit more assertive underneath the sort of qualified surface and each is really this reverse. And so that kind of intrigued me was how do those things fit together, the mixture of the bombast, but then the kind of more quiet self-criticism, self-reflection

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. Right. That makes sense. And that seems like a sound pathway into his work. We should probably tell people a little bit about his work, it occurs to me. I want to talk broadly about his position or his place, his legacy, and the Western tradition where he stands, how he views other writers. But I think before we do that, it might be useful to just say, "What are the problems Nietzsche's confronting?" He's well known for a few slogans. Slogans like the eternal return, the will to power, the Overman or the Superman, but maybe more broadly than that, what are the fundamental problems? We could talk about Nietzsche and Christianity, we could talk about Nietzsche and classical philosophy, but if you had to sum up in a handful, sort of what are the problems in the history of Western thought that Nietzsche is grappling with? How would you sum that up?

JEREMY FORTIER: Well I might pick one of his slogans and kind of unpack it a bit, which I think gets at a lot of what you mentioned and the slogan that I think I would pick is the death of God.

Right? That's a slogan that appears in Nietzsche's work and in two places, there are characters, not Nietzsche himself, but characters who say, "God is dead." Right? And not only that, but in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra says, "Haven't you heard that God is dead?" Which is important because it's not only an assertion about an empirical fact, and this is what I want to now unpack, “the death of God,” it's not a statement of random personal atheism. It's a claim about civilization or culture. And it's the idea that we live in a world in which our God or gods have died, which means not simply that people believe in the Christian God a bit less, but that there's a crisis of meaning. The things that people formally thought give our existence meaning, our ability to believe in those things, is somehow not as strong as it was.

And there's this process of kind of the meaning of things seems to be sacked in all corners of life and the death of God is a kind of metaphor for that. I mean, Nietzsche's certainly concerned with the Christian God and belief in the Christian God and the biblical God more generally. And in fact, just belief in God in general. The death of God isn't only about that. It's about the fact that there seems to be a crisis of meaning and the source of meaning seems to be in doubt in a way that hasn't been in the past. So I think the notion of the death of God really is key for Nietzsche and spreads to all corners of his thought and his assessment of Western philosophy, Western culture.

SHILO BROOKS: Mm-hmm (affirmative) And so when you talk about the death of God and the sort of crisis of meaning, this phrase and what you've described it encapsulating, seems to resonate, especially with young people oddly. I can't tell if it's that they feel acutely the lack of meaning he describes. If they feel that modernity has been vacated of meaning and that's why Nietzsche resonates with them, but I'm curious to hear, I mean, we've talked about how Nietzsche can be an immediate turnoff and I can imagine and I've seen students who, in the wake of Nietzsche's proclamation of the death of God, do find him off-putting, but there's a certain sort of modern youth that's intrigued by that statement and I wonder if you might say something about the relationship of your students and young people in particular to Nietzsche.

Why are they turned on to him? What is it that resonates with them? I always tell my students, "Nietzsche features in a number of films." If you've ever seen Little Miss Sunshine. Or Clueless from the '90's. The boyfriend is in the swimming pool reading Beyond Good and Evil. So there's something iconic about Nietzsche and the sort of teenage life. And so I wonder if we might be able to reflect for a minute on what it is in his thought that really is hitting at the quick or the core of the modern young viewpoint.

JEREMY FORTIER: Yeah. It's a great question. I've noticed this because although I took a number of courses on Nietzsche, have written on Nietzsche, I've actually never taught Nietzsche. And yet in almost every course I've taught, at least one student wants to talk to me about Nietzsche because they've looked me up, they know that I've published things on Nietzsche. And so even though I'm not teaching it to students, there's always someone that comes up to me and says, "Will you talk to me about Nietzsche? I really want to talk about Nietzsche." And so that doesn't happen with anyone else, by the way. I don't get that question about Plato or Saint Augustine in quite the same way. And I think a big part of it relates to this point about meaning because I think young people in particular are receptive to and recognize the importance of the question of what gives my life meaning and what gives our life meaning.

And I think Nietzsche tapped into that in a way that students don't get that from many other sources. I mean, in our university today, students are not encouraged to think about what's the meaning of what we're doing here.


JEREMY FORTIER: In moral terms, of metaphysical. They're not encouraged to think about that. Nietzsche really presses that question. By the way, this is one reason why Nietzsche's rhetoric, I think, can appeal to people who are not entirely on the same page as him. So for instance, the death of God statement can intrigue even students who are pretty religious because some of those students know that those questions about what gives our life meaning are important and they know that Nietzsche took those questions seriously too.


JEREMY FORTIER: Right? So a lot of the [inaudible] quote unquote that they might encounter is pretty shallow or superficial, but with Nietzsche, they encounter someone who really wants to tackle those questions head on. Right. And then in other cases you have completely secular students, but they want to know someone who explains what gives my life meaning. And so I think that, the fact that he's so focused on the question of what gives your life meaning, what gives our life culturally meaning, when you combine that with his brilliant rhetoric, I think that's what really draws students in is he honed in quite accurately on the importance of that question of meaning.

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. So the... question of meaning is certainly central to Nietzsche. For people out there who have philosophic disposition, you've probably heard the word "nihilism" and Nietzsche's... His great opponent. Well, he's got a number of great opponents, but one of his great theoretical opponents is nihilism and this is what Jeremy's talking about when he talks about the crisis of meaning, that the human... Well, I think nihilism, for Nietzsche, can mean two different things. Typically, it seems to mean we can't know what's true or nothing is true, but then there's a secondary meaning in Nietzsche, which is arguably the more profound meaning, which we might be able to touch on later, which is that the human being, as such, is exhausted. Humanity has degenerated to the point where it wills nothing, it wants to become nothing, it wants to annihilate itself in a certain way, but we can get to that maybe a little bit later.

I want to drill down now on a couple of things that people notice when they read Nietzsche right off the bat, and you have mentioned these in passing in your remarks so far, and that is Nietzsche is.... He strikes, of course, the new reader as loud. One of the things that my students always say is that he strikes them as a critic. He's critical. He's, you put it as "shouting," but he'll say something, kind of make a comedic or even slanderous remark about Socrates or Jesus, and you don't expect, when you read a book that's supposed to be serious, to have a man calling these great people names. So I wonder if we might, for people who might read Nietzsche and see him call a great mind and name John Stuart Mill "the great flathead" or something of this nature, if we might be able to deepen these criticisms, and so, you know, Nietzsche is a great critic, maybe the most profound opponent and critic of Christianity ever to have lived.

Can you, or can we say something about the depth and nature of that criticism? Why is he critical of Christianity? What does he think it's done? He's also, remarkably, one should add, grateful to Christianity for deepening the human soul. He's not merely a critic. The same is true, and I guess we could just pick Plato and Socrates. He seems, on the one hand, to be a great critic, on the other hand, and at other places, to express very deep gratitude. The same is true for Schopenhauer, the same is true for Wagner and the list goes on and on and on.

So I wonder if we might say something about his general critical disposition, but why those criticisms shouldn't be dismissed as sort of offhand Nietzsche name-calling and have some depth to them. Are there any criticisms that he makes that you're particularly interested in?

JEREMY FORTIER: Yeah, so it's a great question, and it is one of the features of his writings that I think really stands out to students is the way that he talks about other people, and that can either, again, compel people or repel them depending on how they are and how he speaks about people.

And in thinking about that, I have to say, Nietzsche himself makes a remark about this in one of his last autobiographical writings, about why he writes about other people the way that he does, and it's a remark where Nietzsche kind of justifies himself and at first, when I read it, I didn't take it that seriously, but the more I've studied Nietzsche, the more I think there's something to this remark, so I want to explain it a bit.

He basically says in the remark, "Look, I am only attacking things that I think have genuine strength to them. I would not attack something unless I thought it was a worthy opponent." And when you read his remarks in isolation, they don't always sound like he thinks he has a worthy opponent, but he tells you, "No, I'm only attacking opponents that I think are worthy opponents." And I think that's really true. And by the way, a beautiful way to think about that, he wrote this book, The Twilight of the Idols, where "twilight of the idols" seems to mean things like the death of Christianity, the death of Socrates, whom he attacks right at the start, but if you look at the foreword to that book, the foreword to Twilight of the Idols, he says, "Here, I'm taking aim at eternal idols."

So it's this great paradox. “The Twilight of the Idols,” but the idols that are in twilight are somehow eternal, like there's an eternal appeal to them, and I think Nietzsche really means that, he means, "when I'm attacking Socrates," which he does right at the start of the book, "or when I'm attacking Christianity," as he does even more vigorously throughout the book, “I'm attacking idols and things that yes, in a way, I want to help bring them down, but I recognize that there's an eternal appeal and I'm only picking these idols because I know that in some form, there's something about them that is always going to be legitimately genuinely attractive.” Right? And so I think the extremism of his rhetoric is almost, in a way, it's a tribute to the strength of those opponents, but I also think, by the way, and this goes to our cultural situation and the question about meaning, Nietzsche thinks that modern people don't really want to put up a fight about anything and you sort of alluded to this.

So I think his rhetoric is trying to tell people, "not only are these worthy opponents, but you should want to join the fight." Right? Like you want to recognize there's something that's worth getting excited about, and he thinks other people aren't getting worked up enough about it, so he wants to give a rhetoric that encourages people to think, "this is worth taking on. Not just because it's like a bear clawing to death a little teddy bear or something like that, but because this is really a fight worth having. The opponent is worth taking on."

So I think that's part of what this rhetoric is trying to get at and why he's willing to be so kind of nasty about Socrates, about Christianity and all kinds of other things that we might genuinely respect and want to take seriously. He wants to tell people, "no, but you really got to take this seriously enough to be willing to fight with it."

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense to me and it makes me think of the following thing. People, when I teach Nietzsche, sometimes students will react viscerally to the kinds of criticisms that you've mentioned and then I tell them something like what you've said about how Nietzsche really only confronts his equals. He wants a good opponent and the reason he's... I mean, this sounds arrogant, which, we can talk about Nietzsche's arrogance later, but the reason he attacks or at least is willing to cross swords with Socrates and Jesus is that he…

mean, I hate to say it, but he thinks he's their equal in a way and that this is a profound, millennia-long fight, but what's not often recognized with all the sword-crossing about Nietzsche is that he also, underneath all the shouting, he considers himself to be, and I think legitimately so, one of the most delicate philosophers, sensitive philosophers of them all, and I have in mind the following thing.

He talks often in his writings about dancing and the need to dance and what that might mean metaphorically and Nietzsche can dance his way....And I mean, I'm talking in a metaphorical way now, sort of ballet dance his way around an argument or a philosopher's doctrine in such a way that he'll call him names and rain insults, and then he'll point out the most delicate or he'll provide the most delicate psychological analyses of these thinkers, and... It's so rare to find someone with a soul that's as warlike as Nietzsche's, and yet as dancer-like as Nietzsche's.

And so I think, for people who listen to Jeremy and I talk about, "well, he's a great critic of Christ and he thinks he's Christ's equal" and all these sorts of things--the thing to know is Nietzsche takes those books very seriously, reads them and is engaged in a very deep conversation with them. And so I think it's wrong to think that he's just a bulldozer, that his place in the Western tradition is that merely of a bulldozer. He's also remarkably sensitive, and often, as I said before, he'll express his gratitude to something like Christianity for deepening the human soul, for providing it with what he calls "intellectual probity," a certain sort of honesty that makes truth-seeking even more possible than it might have been for the ancient man, such that post-Christian man is in some ways, for Nietzsche, genealogically or wholly different from the man of the ancient world.

Now, that may or may not be true, but nonetheless, he's willing to be grateful to his opponents and to pick them apart in such a way that makes one think that he's thought so carefully about them, he's not merely dismissing them as out of hand. Do you find that to be an accurate portrayal?

JEREMY FORTIER: Yeah, no, I like that and I really like bringing up the metaphor of dancing because I think part of what that involves for Nietzsche is that dancing is a way that we learn to negotiate an internal tension, so like, in other words, we're torn in different directions. We're attracted to Christianity, but repelled to it, as you suggest. We're attracted to Socrates, but repelled by him. And in a way, I think, in a very limited sense, Nietzsche would actually suggest that practices of dancing and, say, cultural practices of dancing can be helpful to people in getting them to live with these internal tensions and thinking about how do you live as a human being knowing that you're torn in different directions.

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. Yeah. This makes a lot of sense to me. And I think the other thing to say about Nietzsche's sensitivity, his psychological mastery is, on the one hand, he sounds just like he's shouting, on the other hand, he wouldn't have such an effect on you, the reader, if he didn't know how to push your buttons. In other words, he's figured out something beyond mere shouting, his rhetoric is very carefully calculated. It just is, and we haven't mentioned much about this and perhaps this is the place we should go next, it occurs to me, Nietzsche's aphoristic style.

This is unique. I mean, he has, really, two books of essays, The Untimely Meditations and The Genealogy of Morals, but by and large, the rest of Nietzsche's writings are aphoristic, the exception would be Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which is a long poem, but the aphoristic style is unique to Nietzsche. You know, there are a few philosophers in the ancient or pre-Socratic world, in a way, who seem to speak in aphorisms or at least we only have fragments that indicate they were aphoristic in character, you can think of people like Pascal. But what do you take from the fact that Nietzsche wrote in aphorisms? And how do you... I guess the question that I'm thinking of is, Nietzsche, on the one hand, shouts a lot, you combine that with this delicacy of soul that I've tried to argue for, this sensitivity, this dancer's precision, and then you add to that the aphorism, and what do you get? What does that equation equal?

JEREMY FORTIER: It's a great point and I would just suggest that, or occurs to me that what you've pointed to is the sensitivity and adaptability in how he speaks to different readers, what the aphorism does is I think it probably helps with that because he can change voices so much, right? And he becomes harder to pin down. The authorial voice is always switching. So I think that's one virtue of the aphorism for Nietzsche is it makes him harder to pin down, but in a way that lets him make use of just what you've referred to, the sensitivity, the delicacy, the sensitivity to different types of readers.

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. It makes reading his writing very challenging in a way, as well, we should say, because Nietzsche, he says the following. He says, "a thought doesn't come when I wish, it comes when it wishes." And the aphorism is a picture of that. The thought comes not when Nietzsche wishes, when it wishes, and so you can be reading Nietzsche, you read some of his middle works and even works like Beyond Good and Evil and you think, "What the heck does Aphorism 27 have to do with 28?" Whereas you go and you read Kant or even Plato, and at least it's a continuous narrative. Maybe you can't make sense of it but there's a continuous conversation. With Nietzsche, there's this additional challenge, especially with the aphoristic form, where the thoughts appear to come when they wish and he leaves it to the reader to unite or provide or fill in gaps in the argument.

This is peculiar to him and it adds a degree of difficulty. On the other hand, it can make him very seductive. And so I think where we might go now, since we're on the subject of the aphoristic form, is the use and abuse of Nietzsche, and I have in mind that the aphorism lends itself peculiarly to taking Nietzsche out of context and putting slogans of his on a T-shirt or as the epigraph to your book and not really understanding anything about what he's saying other than, "boy, that's a beautiful and moving aphorism."

And so what in history, how has Nietzsche been both used and abused? He has a kind of storied, notorious, ugly history in Germany, which we can talk about. He then makes it to America via people like Mencken and others. But can you think of, or to your mind, does there stick out any sort of ways that Nietzsche's been used and abused, misunderstood? We should... maybe I'll mention in this context, a lot of work had to be done after the Second World War to sort of rehabilitate Nietzsche, to make him palatable to contemporary audiences and there's a man, a translator of Nietzsche who is largely responsible for this, named Walter Kaufmann. So if people are interested in how Nietzsche got to America and who was it that rehabilitated Nietzsche after the Second World War, because Nietzsche was a German....You can, I will say, find photographs of Adolf Hitler with his arm around Nietzsche's bust. You can find a picture of Nietzsche's sister giving Nietzsche's walking stick to Hitler. Nietzsche never knew Hitler. He was critical of anti-semitism, at least from my point of view, some scholars disagree with that. And his sister was an anti-semite and perverted a lot of his work in a certain way.

And so all this said, Walter Kaufmann then had to come along and rehabilitate Nietzsche, translate his writings into English and reintroduce him certainly to American audiences. But I'm curious if you have any reflections on the use and abuse, let's say, to take one of Nietzsche's own titles, of Nietzsche's writings.

JEREMY FORTIER: Yeah, well, I find this one of the hardest things in Nietzsche to get right is figuring out how to place him relative to his legacy. And the reason is, and you may disagree with this or just have your own comments, but I think there's basically two big problems in the reception of Nietzsche. On the one hand, there is what you might call the over-politicization where Nietzsche is seen as the theorist of or a justification for a very specific political program, which means not only Nazism, but all kinds of German nationalism, militarism, Richard Wagner's movement after Nietzsche's death. There's a kind of sometimes a very specific type of politicization, and I would say kind of over-politicization that has happened.

On the other hand, the problem that emerged more so in the Anglo-Saxon angle, sort of Anglophone world after the Second World War, particularly thanks to Kaufmann, as you mentioned, is the under-politicization. Sometimes also known as the aestheticization, to use the big word. But the idea that Nietzsche is just about personal self-creation, just about a kind of the private individual or self-fashioning their own life.

So we have these, what I consider to be extreme overreactions, the over-politicization and the under politicization, and the trick is to know exactly where to put him, but that's ultimately difficult because his writings, although we've mentioned they have this extreme character, they're not prescriptive in any ordinary practical sense. At least for people who talk about Nietzsche's politics, there's a lot of useful work, but sometimes people wind up relying a lot on unpublished remarks, because there he seems to be more pragmatic and more concrete. The published writings we know he means, he's anti-modern, anti-liberal, anti-democratic, yes, but knowing exactly how to calibrate, how do we take his political position is tricky. And that ultimately is part of what makes it easy for people to appropriate him in any number of directions. And so, this as I say, is something that I still struggle with and the fact that there are so many different voices in Nietzsche, knowing exactly what he wanted people to take as the practical message, the political message, the cultural message.

I know you'll have thoughts on this. I can add some of my own, but the first thing I just wanted to stress is that it's difficult to get right. And it's difficult especially because some of the most influential interpretations of Nietzsche are too far on either extreme.

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. This is really good. I mean, I'd given some thought and I'm not by no means a lot of thought and I'd like to give it more to Nietzsche's, how do I say, I mean you put it well, Nietzsche is... there's few figures like this, maybe Tocqueville, maybe Plato where two seemingly opposed parties, and it doesn't have to be political parties, it can be two parties on the side of some intellectual issue, will both cite him as their authority. And so you find Nietzsche on the far right. Especially today, you can find Nietzsche influential on thinkers on the far right. And yet you also find Nietzsche on the far left, and this is true of so few thinkers, and I'm trying to think of what it is in him that leaves him open to this or makes these folks who would disagree with one another both agree with him. Do you have any sense for that?

JEREMY FORTIER: So, I do think that part of what's significant here is that he is in a very broad sense anti-modern and people on the far left and far right are both people who feel that there's something really wrong with the modern world. By the way, this is another source of what gets students interested in him. The students who come up to me asking me about Nietzsche, are usually people who feel in some vague general sense that there's something not quite right with the world as it is. And so that tends to attract people on the various extremes. And I think maybe in part just because Nietzsche is such a great writer, people want to claim him, right? How could you not want to, when he's such a great writer. There's something about that, that makes me think, "I'd rather have this guy on my side, given what a great writer he is, given how great some of his imagery is."

But I do think it's that kind of general, but not very specific anti- or somewhat vague at times in concrete practical terms, anti-modernism, and Nietzsche has been blamed for this, the idea that he stokes people's anti-modernism, but doesn't give them a real practical path about what to do with that feeling.

SHILO BROOKS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

JEREMY FORTIER: Right? That he's, I think, been somewhat justly blamed for doing this, for stoking a kind of general sense of anti-modernism, but then not telling people, well, what do you do about that? And so arguably it leaves him open to appropriation by people on the extremes who sympathize with the gut level anti-modernism, but don't have a lot of very helpful practical suggestions.

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. And when Jeremy, by the way, when he says anti-modernism, he means something like Nietzsche's broad critiques of the features of the modern world. I mean, Nietzsche is a critic of democracy as a regime. Those of you who are interested, you can read his book Beyond Good and Evil, the fifth main part on the natural history of morals. And you can find the last aphorism is just extraordinarily critical of liberal democracy. Of course, Christianity, what he calls in his autonomy meditations, the cultivated Philistine, the person who just reads the newspaper and listens to whatever, music is said to be deep and then they may go to a play and come home and watch the news on the TV. And they appear to be educated, but they're really quite shallow.

They lack a certain sort of animating spiritual struggle in the soul. This person is characterized by Nietzsche in his later works as the last man, a person who is merely concerned with the satisfaction of appetites, of various kinds. Base sort of animal appetites. You might think of a culture that focuses on acquisition and money making and these sorts of things as the highest ends for human life. I think Nietzsche would find repugnant and turns in the kind of direction, more in the direction of a certain sort of aristocracy, at least spiritual aristocracy, which we can talk a little bit more about.

But I think it's important. I mean, since we were talking about Nietzsche, we've talked about things that he's critical of, Socrates, Jesus, I wonder if we might mention not his influence on the far right and the far left which we've talked about and certainly... we did a podcast on Heidegger recently and we don't hide Heidegger's affiliation with the Nazi party and certainly should speak openly about Nietzsche's influence on certain movements that we find repugnant and distasteful today.

But I wonder if we might talk about this great band of folks in the middle, the intellectuals who Nietzsche had a real influence on. People, I mean, the folks who come to mind certainly Foucault, but as diverse to say Foucault and Leo Strauss, and Martin Heidegger, and I'm sure there are others, there are others that come to your mind. Just people who have taken up Nietzsche and who have themselves left a mark.

JEREMY FORTIER: Well, I think also of many novelists, people like Thomas Mann, for instance, that's another big area where he has been influential.

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. If you're interested in Nietzsche, you can find his fingerprints on an awful lot of the intellectual world. I mean, you can certainly, you can even find it, I mentioned H. L. Mencken bringing Nietzsche to America. I was reading one of my favorite novelists, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I was reading his letters to his daughter, and he tells his daughter that he's been reading Nietzsche and that she should read Nietzsche. And you're thinking, this is 1920 in America. So he's fascinating in this respect. I wonder if we might sort of shift now for a moment, let's talk a little bit about Nietzsche's books. One of the things I do at the end of every podcast is ask people to recommend books that they think people should start with. But before we do that, I want to ask you, given how much Nietzsche you've read, is there a book, maybe not the one that people should start with, but is there a book that has left a particular imprint on you or has impressed you as a kind of quintessential nature writing?

JEREMY FORTIER: Well, let me see. So the course I took a seminar on was dealing with Beyond Good and Evil. So let me say something about where [inaudible] what talking about Nietzsche's books in terms of what is the best fish hook. I can say, there are three books that Nietzsche wrote deliberately as introductions to his life: Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morals, and Twilight of the Idols. They're increasingly shorter and political. So that's both a vert, that's in a one way of virtue that they get shorter, but on the other hand, depending on who you are, it can be an obstacle that they get more and more political.

But I think those three books, if you were to ask, what did Nietzsche write to be a kind of, this is a general introduction to my thought, it's those three. But if I were to recommend just one to our readers, I might recommend The Gay Science. And the reason I'd recommend The Gay Science is that he's roughly speaking from the middle of his career as an author. I don't just mean sometimes people talk about the middle period with Nietzsche, I don't mean that so much as, I mean, literally it's a transition point in his writings, because he's planning his most kind of famous and dramatic book Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

He's planning that, it's one of his most kind of captivating also most difficult books, but so he's planning Zarathustra, but he's not quite giving you that yet. So he's writing in a somewhat both calmer and I think a bit more accessible form in The Gay Science. So The Gay Science in aphoristic work, which means it's characteristic of most of his writings, it's less obscure than a book like Zarathustra, but it gives you, I think, a great overview of a lot of his main concerns, main thoughts as an author.

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. The other interesting thing about The Gay Science that I think proves, or at least points to what you say is that Nietzsche returned to The Gay Science and added the fifth book of The Gay Science after he'd written Beyond Good and Evil.

JEREMY FORTIER: That's right. And you also get in there intimations of his most famous doctrines, the will to power, eternal return. He doesn't quite use those phrases always, but he's clearly has them in mind that he wants to get people thinking in that direction. So I think it's really helpful, kind of as an introduction to his thought for that reason too.

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. And we should let people know that it also contains a prelude in rhymes.


SHILO BROOKS: Aren't there songs at the end of it, right?

JEREMY FORTIER: Yeah. There are songs at the end.

SHILO BROOKS: So this is the character of Nietzsche's writing is that he is written this great book of philosophy and aphorisms and then there are songs in it too and you're not going to find Kant singing songs. And I think that maybe he sings songs, but he didn't put them in his books. And so I think that's worth thinking about Nietzsche. I have to say from my own experience and I suspect this cuts to the difference between our two pathways to the same author.

The book that really got me, I mean, it wasn't the first book I read, but the one that I think probably made me fall for Nietzsche as one does, is what appears to be an autobiography of sorts called Ecce Homo. How one becomes what one he is. And I think the reason is because you see a man writing words in the manner that he does, or at least I did. And you see a mind that is as powerful as his, mine is certainly not powerful enough, for example, to challenge Socrates or all of Christianity. And I think, that's an extraordinary mind and that mind also has with it, or at least comes with an extraordinary rhetorical gifts. Who the heck is this guy? But the interesting thing is when you turn to Ecce Homo, what you find is a kind of autobiography, except he lies about himself a lot in it on purpose and subtitles such as, "Why I am so Clever," "Why I am so Wise," "Why I Write such Good Books," and then, "Why I am a Destiny."


SHILO BROOKS: And so this man claims in a way to be the greatest human being, or he says, Zarathustra, his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the greatest gift given to humanity. That's not a modest assertion. So I think that book is interesting largely because one has to make sense of precisely what he is trying to do there. But if you're interested in Nietzsche the man, there are all kinds of biographies, but I suspect his autobiography will intrigue people. 

JEREMY FORTIER: Yeah. And just to word on that, because I think it gets at something which is important both about Nietzsche's thought and about his influence, which is that Nietzsche is a philosopher who talks a lot about himself. And he's very concerned with the self, in a way that other philosophers haven't been and it's part of one has given him this influence on people like modern novelists is that unlike some older philosophers, there’s a big kind of fascination with the self and yourself and exploring yourself in a way that's distinctive to his thought or some fairly distinctive his thought. We might talk about Mountain as a possible precursor, but it's pretty distinctive to him in the history of philosophy. And it's one reason why he's influenced so many people subsequently is there's this notion of yourself as a real topic of interest.

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. That is unique about Nietzsche. He talks, you don't see Plato talking about himself all the time. Nietzsche will come up in all of his works in some way. Talking about Ecce Homo makes me think about, I don't remember if it was Charles who said this or something along these lines or who it was, but that Nietzsche is a product of the Western tradition and therefore in a way the peak of the Western tradition and yet the destroyer of the Western tradition at the same time. So he marks its peak and its gradual slope downwards in a certain way. He's one of its most profound products at the same time that he is perhaps its most profound critic. And I wonder if you also see that in Nietzsche.

JEREMY FORTIER: Yeah. I think there's a lot to that and the way I think about this, which is contestable, but the way I've come to think about it is that Nietzsche would say, "I'm the person who can accomplish, what all the people before me, philosophers, theologians, whomever. I can accomplish what they've been trying to accomplish, but I can see why they were all going about it the wrong way." And another way of putting that is, Nietzsche is not, as he is sometimes taken or as he can sometimes sound like, he's not an enemy of truth. He's not an enemy of philosophy. He just thinks that people who have been pursuing these things have gone about it the wrong way.

SHILO BROOKS: That’s right.

JEREMY FORTIER: And so that's what makes him gives him this unusual position. He's saying, "I'm a philosopher too, but I'm someone who can see everyone else's errors and show you how to really get a truth in a way that no one else has understood."



SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. And if you're interested in that and watching Nietzsche do that, I recommend to people, you can correct me on this. The first, a main part of Beyond Good and Evil called the “Prejudices of the Philosophers.” And that's an interesting part too, which we should have mentioned earlier when we were talking about the main kind of ideas in Nietzsche's thought, because you mentioned the question of meaning and perhaps this is identical to that, but Nietzsche understands himself to be that philosopher who inquires about a question that no philosopher here took for, has inquired about and they've all taken for granted and that is why do we want truth? Why is truth valuable to us? Why not lies? He says, he then he goes on to show many circumstances or scenarios, both superficial and quite deep where human beings seem to prefer lies.

And the reason they prefer lies is often because truth is, in Nietzsche's view, and this is a major theme, harmful to life, whatever that means. Knowing the truth is often in a way spiritually and perhaps even physically detrimental such that organic life has some odd agonistic relationship with truth. The more truth you know, the more hearty you have to be to bear it. And he talks about that himself and he's got a great essay called “The Use and Disadvantages of History for Life,” where he talks about the way in which precise and accurate historical knowledge where we to be able to have it might actually destroy an entire people. And so it's Nietzsche is really concerned with the question of the value of truth. And so we probably should have mentioned that.

Well, we only have a few minutes left and I think we both talked about the books in your case, The Gay Science and mine, Ecce Homo that lured us in or compelled us to take Nietzsche a little bit more seriously. Are there books that you would recommend listeners read, maybe the one book or two books that are for somebody who has no idea who this guy is? They've heard us talking about all this crazy stuff with the lack of meaning and his perversion by the far right, the Nazis, the far left and Foucault and just who the heck is this guy? Is there a book that one might start with to kind of get a better handle on this?

JEREMY FORTIER: Yeah. I know this is what I'm going to wrestle with the most. Well, I would definitely recommend people read Paul Franco's book, Nietzsche's Enlightenment.

'Cause that's a great view of Nietzsche, the so-called middle-period works. But showing how those middle-period works fit into his broader corpus. And I think Franco is really great at approaching Nietzsche with a kind of level head, showing what a lot of the kind of big issues that overlap his entire career, how those come out of that book. So, and again, I think Franco's helpful because he takes such a level-headed approach, which Nietzsche often doesn't seem to.


JEREMY FORTIER: But I think Franco gives you a great, he focuses on the middle-period of works, which deserve more attention. But I think that Franco is a great kind of inlet to how to just approach Nietzsche with a level head and understand what a lot of those big issues are. Big questions are.

SHILO BROOKS: Well on that note  you left out a book, By Yourself, that I feel like might be a candidate. Can you tell us a little bit about and I love Paul Franco, so if you're listening Paul, I'm not trying to… but can you tell us a little bit about your approach to Nietzsche? Because I think you take an innovative approach through these prefaces. Can you tell us about the prefaces and why your book is introductory in a whole new way?

JEREMY FORTIER: Yeah. So The Challenge of Nietzsche, I subtitled it how to approach his thought, which is a bit bolder than it should be, I guess, in a Nietzsche spirit. But what I had in mind there is Nietzsche does something really unusual as an author. One we've already mentioned. He writes an autobiography where he gives you an overview of all of his earlier books. But he also did something unusual, which is a number of his books that he published over the course of his career, four or five of them, years after he first published them, he went back and gave them new prefaces and the prefaces are all kind of autobiographical. And in fact, he did this as part of a year of his life, basically writing quasi-autobiographical prefaces to a lot of his older books. So one of the questions that kind of drove me to write my own book was to say okay, what is Nietzsche saying about his own career and how he understood his development as a thinker?

So what I try to do in that book is basically make sense of a lot of these autobiographical writings of Nietzsche and use Nietzsche as a guide to Nietzsche. Right. And see okay. 'Cause I think these have been overlooked a bit and they haven't been given quite enough attention by scholars, a lot of this kind of, Ecce Homo has gotten a bit more attention, not as much as it deserves, as you suggest. But the prefaces I think have gotten even less attention. But he spent a good chunk of time of the better part of the year writing autobiographical prefaces for all these older books. And I think he's showing you something very unusual about himself, which is that his thought evolved over the course of his career as an author. In a way that isn't clearly true of Plato or Hegel in the same way, It's not clearly true in the same way or to the same degree.

And Nietzsche is kind of making a character out of himself and saying, look, you can look at my saga. You can look at my kind of journey as an author. And I'm going to show you how to walk through my career and see how anyone who's wrestling with some of these questions about meaning, about the death of God, about our culture, how they're going to live with those questions and think through those questions over a period of time. He's setting himself up as a kind of character to look at. So this is what I try to do in the book is show how Nietzsche kind of sets him in my book. I try to show how Nietzsche sets himself up as a character and kind of maps out his own journey as an exemplary one for other people who might be wrestling with some of the same questions that he wrestled with.

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, that's very good and frankly it's a really great idea for a book. The prefaces are neglected, as you say, and they're a great pathway into Nietzsche's thought. Look, I want to thank you for being with us today. If you're interested, everybody should check out Jeremy's book, The Challenge of Nietzsche. If you're interested in Nietzsche, go check out Ecce Homo, go look at The Gay Science, pick up Beyond Good and Evil. These are some of the big works in his corpus that are often taught in universities. All right. Jeremy, thank you so much.   

JEREMY FORTIER: Thank you for having me.

SHILO BROOKS:  The Free Mind podcast is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado Boulder. You can email us feedback and freemind@colorado.edu or visit us online at colorado.edu/center/benson.