Why Nietzsche is my desert island philosopher

by Emrys Westacott

Friedrich Nietzsche is my “desert island philosopher.” Guests, or “castaways” on BBC Radio 4’s long running program “Desert Island Discs” are allowed to take to their desert island, in addition to eight pieces of music, a text of religious or philosophical significance. Many accept the bible as the default option. For me, the choice is a no brainer: I’d take the works of Nietzsche.

But why? It certainly isn’t because he’s the thinker I agree with most. In fact there are many aspects of his thought that are silly, hopelessly outmoded, or morally objectionable. Some of his observations about women, about racial types, about democracy, and about liberal values in general, for instance, are about as misguided as its possible to be––at least from the standpoint of anyone who endorses said liberal values. His unabashed elitism, and occasional apparent indifference to the suffering so often inflicted on the many by the powerful few, would be almost laughable if it weren’t for the fact that we still live in a world were such suffering abounds.

Finding examples in Nietzsche’s writings of propositions that are awful-going-on-horrible is like looking for a needle in a tin of needles. On women, for instance:

When a woman has scholarly intentions there is usually something wrong with her sexually.[1]

On how the ruling class may and should treat those beneath them:

The essential characteristic of a good and healthy aristocracy …is that it experiences itself not as a function (whether of the monarchy or the commonwealth) but as their meaning and highest justification–that it therefore accepts with a good conscience the sacrifice of untold human beings who, for its sake, must be reduced and lowered to incomplete human beings, to slaves, to instruments.[2]

Or on what constitutes progress:

The magnitude of an “advance” can… be measured by the mass of things that had to be sacrificed to it; mankind in the mass sacrificed to the prosperity of a single stronger species of man–that would be an advance.[3]

Given such sentiments, why on earth do I like Nietzsche so much? After all, I like most of Nietzsche readers–and today he is probably the most popular of the “great” philosophers–would almost certainly be judged by him to be “herd” or “rabble,” self-interestedly promoting the values of what he calls “the last man”–viz. safety, comfort, contentment, and mediocrity.

The first and probably most obvious reason that I love reading Nietzsche is simply that he has no equal among philosophers as a stylist. Plato’s best dialogues are beautifully constructed, and the ideas are sometimes made vivid through memorable images like the allegory of the cave. But Nietzsche is in a league of his own as a philosopher-poet. He draws from an inexhaustible fund of metaphors, similes, allusions, puns, and image-laden expressions that enliven so many of his aphorisms. Here’s an example chosen at random, although it’s one that, interestingly, can perhaps be applied to Nietzsche himself:

Philosophers’ error.­­– The philosopher supposes that the value of his philosophy lies in the whole, in the structure; but posterity finds its value in the stone which he used for the building, and which is used many more times after that for building–better. Thus it finds the value in the fact that the structure can be destroyed and nevertheless retains value as building material.   (Mixed Opinions and Maxims, 201)

Nietzsche is witty. He writes with great intensity. His writings wear the passions that motivate them openly. Sometimes, as in the case of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, this tendency gets out of control. But for the most part it’s a refreshing change from the sort of dry scholarly writing with which academic philosophers keep company most of the time.

Nietzsche is seductive. Ironically, one of Nietzsche’s favourite images is that of the seducer. He applies the term, always critically, to women, priests, Socrates, Wagner, Christianity, pity , grammar…..the list is extensive. But Nietzsche is without question, one of most seductive of all philosophers. And his method often isn’t all that complicated. When Zarathustra says, “I beseech you my brothers, remain faithful to the earth!” it’s hard for the reader–or at least male readers–not to feel that he is being personally addressed: that he is among the select band, the happy few, who understands his friend Fritz and is worthy of receiving his teachings.

But the brilliance of Nietzsche’s style, his wit, his passion, and his seductive charm, wouldn’t be enough to make me want his books for company on the desert island. If that was all there was, one would tire of his aphorisms the way one tires of food that lacks nutritional value. Ultimately, what makes Nietzsche endlessly readable is the extraordinary range, profundity, and sheer interestingness of what he has to say. Politics is probably his weakest subject area, in large part because his explicit hostility to democracy and egalitarianism of any kind makes him hopelessly out of date–untimely, as he might say. Yet even here, he was capable of prescience. Regarding Geman nationalism, for instance, he famously observed:

“Power makes stupid……Deutschland, Deutschland über alles–that I fear was the end of German philosophy.”[4]

However, when it comes to human psychology, culture in general, religion, morality, the history of philosophy, and the arts (especially music), Nietzsche offers a feast of brilliant, enlightening, thought-provoking ideas. Naturally, there’s much to disagree with. And there are many claims that are, in a sense, quite baffling. What is one to make, for instance, of his suggestion that the notion of free will was invented to make the spectacle of human affairs more interesting to the watching gods?[5] In such cases–and there are many of them–Nietzsche seems to be experimenting with an idea, exploring a perspective, just to see if it leads somewhere.

In his essay, “Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels,” George Orwell discusses the question of why he enjoys Gulliver’s Travels so much–he says it would be on his list of six books to be preserved if all others were destroyed–when it expresses a view of life and the world that he deeply disagrees with. He concludes that although Swift is “a diseased writer,” he expresses a world-view that contains some particle of truth, that the sheer intensity of his vision enables him to express it vividly, and that “if the force of belief is behind it, a world-view which only just passes the test of sanity is sufficient to produce a great work of art.”[6]

Although Nietzsche and Swift shared the common fate of eventually becoming insane, I would say that Nietzsche’s view of life is far from “only just” passing the test of sanity. The wisdom it contains isn’t just one aspect of the human condition magnified, but something far more kaleidoscopic–and strangely delightful.

[1] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 144.

[2] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 258.

[3] Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay, 13.

[4] Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, What the Germans lack, 2.

[5] Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay, 7.

[6] George Orwell, “Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels. s