Nietzche by Gary NeillTo anyone who met him in his prime, Friedrich Nietzsche looked like a genial old-style man of letters: a quiet, dapper, unworldly bachelor, kind to children and exceedingly polite. But those who kept up with his prodigious output of books – he wrote more than one a year once he hit his stride in the 1880s – knew that the mild manner concealed incandescent ambition. The gentle professor liked to think of himself as a wild beast on the rampage, an intellectual terrorist who was going to “divide history into two halves”. His mission: to destroy the last vestiges of Christianity by means of a free-spirited “philosophy of the future” – a brave new pagan philosophy heralding a brave new pagan world. “I am no man,” he said. “I am dynamite.”

One of the books on which Nietzsche pinned his hopes was Twilight of the Idols – an immoralist manifesto which backed the “instinct of life” in its fight against dismal moral precepts. “There is no such thing as a moral fact,” Nietzsche wrote. “Moral sentiment has this in common with religious sentiment: it believes in realities which do not exist.” But he meant to make still bigger waves with Thus Spake Zarathustra, a pseudo-Biblical rhapsody about a messianic Eastern preacher who wanders the earth with an eagle and a serpent, preaching the “death of God”. God has died, we are told, from an excess of “pity”, and his fate should be a warning to us all. We must “beware of pity”, Zarathustra says, and never forget that our first duty is not to others but to ourselves. We should also learn to think of the present as the prelude to a joyous new epoch – an age liberated not only by the death of God but also by the end of humanity as we know it and its transfiguration into the Übermensch, in other words something post-human, superhuman or better-than-human. And if we should find these oracles baffling or repulsive, that lies not in them but in our own all-too-human prejudices: thus spake Zarathustra.

When Zarathustra and Twilight first appeared, they attracted little interest and Nietzsche’s name remained obscure. During the 1890s, however, they caught the public imagination and Nietzsche became the celebrity of world literature he had always wanted to be. He was admired not as a venerable old philosopher in the high tradition of Plato or Kant, but an outrageous and irreconcilable enemy to religion and morality, especially when they deck themselves in the robes of philosophical reason. By that time, however, he was in no condition to savour his success: back in December 1888, at the age of 44, he had collapsed in a square in Turin, and the remaining twelve years of his life were to be passed in a state of serene insanity.

The calamity of madness did no harm to Nietzsche’s burgeoning reputation: he came to fame as the philosopher who denounced the demands of reason so effectively that at last he lost his own. Twilight could now be seen as foreshadowing the eclipse of an intellect of such power that no one could stand it, even himself, and Zarathustra became a record of insights too deep to be expressed in the ordinary discourse of reason: indeed it inspired two of the most adventurous young composers of the 1890s – Richard Strauss and Frederick Delius – to transpose the gospel of the death of God into swathes of futuristic sound.

The first self-proclaimed Nietzscheans in the English-speaking world were avant-garde writers like WB Yeats, Jack London, JM Synge, James Joyce, DH Lawrence and Edwin Muir: rebellious radicals, unmistakably “modern” and self-consciously “young”. Nietzscheanism, to them, meant the call of the wild. They adored Twilight – which appeared in translation in 1895 – not only for its general air of braggadocio (the subtitle is How to Philosophise with a Hammer), but also for its ferocity about an earlier generation of English radicals. “England”, for Nietzsche, was the land where “for every little emancipation from divinity, people have to re-acquire respectability by becoming moral fanatics,” or where the typical atheist “aspires to honour for not being one”. He poured scorn on Darwin as a complacent peace-loving optimist, and condemned Carlyle for combining a “longing for a strong belief” with “the feeling of incapacity for it”. Uninhibited by direct knowledge (he never visited Britain, let alone Ireland or America, and could not read English), Nietzsche was able to mock John Stuart Mill for his “offensive transparency”, while dismissing George Eliot as one of those “ethical girls” who, having “got rid of the Christian God … think themselves obliged to cling firmer than ever to Christian morality.”

The young Nietzscheans knew that their master would have despised their socialism and anarchism, not to mention their feminism, and many of them were aware that, back in Germany, a very different cult of the Übermensch was being promoted by Nietzsche’s ultra-conservative sister Elizabeth. But they were exhilarated by Nietzsche’s highly quotable motto Nichts ist wahr: Alles ist erlaubt (“nothing is true: everything is permitted”). They were inspired by his ethic of magnificent autonomy – the “master-morality” of the proud blond beast as opposed to the slave-morality of trembling Christian killjoys. They found glamour in Nietzsche’s extremism, and were more interested in excitement and inspiration than guidance or exact interpretation. “Nietzsche is worse than shocking,” as the unshockable George Bernard Shaw put it, enviously: “he is simply awful – his epigrams are written with phosphorus on brimstone”. And the glorious Isadora Duncan – self-styled “dancer of the future” – was of much the same opinion: “How do we know,” she asked, “that what seems to us insanity was not a vision of transcendental truth?”

The young Nietzcheans did not hesitate to identify Nietzsche himself with the Übermensch – or the “beyond-man”, as the first translator of Zarathustra put it – and they dreamed of a day when they too might be acclaimed as pioneers of post-humanity. The main vehicle for their project was a little magazine called The Eagle and the Serpent: A Journal of Egoistic Philosophy, started in 1898 by a young Londoner by the name of John Erwin McCall. Its policy was summed up in two defiant slogans: “a race of altruists is necessarily a race of slaves” and “a race of freemen is necessarily a race of egoists”, and the first issue called for the creation of a network of “Egoist Coteries” to serve as centres of resistance to all kinds of religion – or rather to all except for McCall’s fresh new creed, known as “the Religion of Hate”.

McCall and his fellow haters were passionate about social change, but they wanted nothing to do with the progressive politics of the past. Their aim was not social justice but self-emancipation, and “the realisation of a higher type of human being … a being as much superior to man as man is superior to the ape.” But where Nietzsche might have expected the dictatorship of the Übermensch to be the work of a cultural aristocracy, his followers at The Eagle and the Serpent looked to a revolutionary workers’ movement based in what they called “class-consciousness” or “class-selfism”. They also amended Nietzsche’s attitude to Darwin, claiming that the “master morality” of the future was “synonymous with … the modern doctrine of evolution”. But in spite of their appeals to mass movements and natural science, they still conducted themselves like an exclusive sect. The principles of the Übermensch (or the “overman” – a term they preferred to “beyond-man”) were “not for boys, nor for old women, nor for dreamers either,” they declared: “they are the ethics for full-grown men, for noble, strong, wide-awake men, who shape the world’s destiny.”

Radical Nietzscheanism was probably the first philosophical movement to pride itself on the raw extravagance of youth rather than the mature wisdom of experience. Bernard Shaw, now in his forties, found it made him feel old; but he offered the egoist teenagers his support, hoping they might re-invigorate the socialist movement by “bringing Individualism round again on a higher plane”. He also broke the translation logjam over the Übermensch with his all-conquering neologism “superman”, and gave the journal an endorsement that its editor could brandish with pride: “it promises,” he said, “to be foolish enough to make people think.”

In 1900, The Eagle and the Serpent was taken over by Charles Watts, tireless printer-publisher to the Rationalist Press Association. But this arrangement – which makes it a precursor and stable-mate of the New Humanist – did not last long. In spite of dropping its explicit hostility to altruism and changing its subtitle to “the journal of wit, wisdom and wickedness” and “a journal for free spirits”, it remained an eccentric and unpredictable publication, and in 1902, after spluttering through eighteen issues, it expired.

The Nietzschean avant-garde ran out of steam during the Great War, when radicalism and Germanophilia lost their allure; and its fortunes did not improve when Hitler and Mussolini made a pitch for recognition as embodiments of the Übermensch. But Nietzsche’s star has been rising since the 1950s: his life and work have benefited from tremendous efforts of scholarship, translation and interpretation, and eminent professional philosophers have taken to sporting a few Zarathustrian exotica – the assaults on truth, on morality, and on philosophy itself – to add dash and dazzle to their otherwise sombre intellectual wardrobe. After all this excitement, two new books by Julian Young will come as a bit of a surprise.

In Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Religion, Young presents a scandalously unscandalous version of the author who dreamed of dividing world history in two. Politically, Young’s Nietzsche was neither a proto-anarchist nor a proto-Nazi, but a mainstream one-nation conservative who, though not much of a democrat, would have favoured something like “twentieth-century Scandinavian social democracy”. And in matters of faith, he was “never” an atheist and, if he was not exactly a Christian, he “ought to be regarded as a religious reformer rather than an enemy of religion.”

Young supports his revisionist reading with a chronological survey of Nietzsche’s remarks about religion, finding important continuities between the relatively disciplined and reasonable analyses of the 1870s and the histrionic diatribes of the late style. He lays particular emphasis on Birth of Tragedy, which came out in 1872, when Nietzsche was a promising young Professor of Greek at the University of Basel. The main purpose of the book was to challenge 19th-century idealisations of classical Greece: ancient tragedy at its greatest, Nietzsche argued, was animated not by orderliness and quiet decorum but by an inebriated frenzy of music, dance and rollicking enormity. Then there was Socrates; and Socrates, deranged by philosophy, murdered tragedy.

But there were reasons for hope: with any luck, Nietzsche’s friend and mentor Richard Wagner would soon be reviving the boisterous spirit of pre-Socratic Greece after 2,000 wasted years. And if Young is right, Nietzsche expected Wagner’s “music of the future” to lead not only to a resuscitation of opera and drama but also to the restoration of “festive, communal religion”. The young Nietzsche, in other words, was an aficionado of “religious communitarianism”, and was committed to the social necessity of religion throughout his productive life. For all his bluster about the death of God, therefore, he was not anti-religious at all, and if he spoke harshly about Christianity it was not because it was too religious for him but because it was not religious enough.

Young is an unfailingly helpful author, who likes, as he puts it, to “decipher” the “metaphors” in which Nietzsche was apt to hide his opinions, and to “call a spade a spade”. Nietzsche can indeed be paradoxical: how could it be otherwise when he considered truth a form of error and morality immoral? But when Young smoothes away the difficulties – suggesting for example that that Nietzsche’s “Gods” are really “role-models” and that when he referred to “good things” he really meant “things currently called ‘good’” – it is hard not to suspect him of being all-too-helpful, and losing something in his translation.

Young cites the beautiful observation, in Twilight, that “we are not yet rid of God because we still believe in Grammar”, but Nietzschean fundamentalists will not be impressed by the gloss he puts on it. Young believes that Nietzsche was reproaching us for supposing that God must exist because we have a word for him, and every word must stand for something. But if that was his argument, he would have expected us to keep faith not only with God but with everything else we could name, from miasmas and perpetual motion to Queen Mab and the man in the moon. And anyway why should he have dragged Grammar into it? As a Professor of Greek, he must have known more about Grammar than he cared to remember: all those lifeless rules that students are expected to follow when putting together sentences in a foreign language. When he spoke of “believing in Grammar” he can only have meant exalting pedantic textbook formulas over poetic instinct, and imagining that when we are uncertain how to express ourselves we should settle the question by referring to some funereal grammar-book – just as servile moralists expect us to follow the guidance of sacred texts when we are not sure how to behave. We believe in God, in short, because we cannot bear the thought that there is no external authority to draw a boundary for us, separating evil from good.

It is impossible to take Young quite seriously when he claims that Nietzsche was never an atheist: when he says Nietzsche was “above all a religious thinker” he must be invoking the idea of a religion without God. The notion of atheistical religion is not particularly far-fetched: it has often been applied to Buddhism, and, closer to home, it is the fundamental proposition of the 19th-century Religions of Humanity, ancestors of various contemporary humanisms.

But even if we go along with Young in treating Nietzsche as an advocate of atheistic religion, it is hard to follow him when he goes on to claim that “what Nietzsche wants is … a revival which will replace the anti-humanism of Christianity with the ‘noble’ humanism of Greek religion.” The idea of the Übermensch is not easy to unravel, but it was certainly meant to put a bomb under humanism in all its forms: for Nietzsche, the “humanity” revered by humanists was no more than the ghostly residue of a deceased almighty God. A Nietzschean religion, if there could be such a thing, would have to dispense not only with God but also with Man, making do with a superhuman je ne sais quoi that might – who can tell? – prove more interesting than either.

Young has now expanded his unorthodox account of Nietzsche’s religiosity into a bulky biography. Friedrich Nietzsche is the work of a philosopher rather than a historian – Young confines himself to familiar published sources – but it has rightly been welcomed as the most thorough and balanced work of its kind: readable, well-paced, and – aside from a few small missteps – accurate and judicious. It is also, in its way, strikingly generous. “Technical philosophical analysis,” Young admits, “was not Nietzsche’s strong suit”, but his occasional lapses into “seriously shonky reasoning” should be pardoned on account of his lack of “philosophical training”. Young does his best to patch things up on Nietzsche’s behalf, and by interleaving rational summaries of Nietzsche’s writings with detailed accounts of the events of his life he manages, by a kind of triangulation, to make plausible guesses about his underlying philosophical opinions.

Logically spruced up, Nietzsche looks reassuringly familiar – as sensible and lucid as a contemporary professional philosopher. Any appearance of contradiction in his attitude to morality, for instance, is removed by noting that he used the word in two distinct senses: one “pejorative” and the other “non-pejorative”. It then becomes clear that “what he is talking about”, even in the most tortuous passages of his prose, or what he “has in mind” or, failing that, what he “is working towards”, was something like a “general theory of cultural health” – a theory which implied that, amidst the ravages of modernity, only a “community-preserving faith” can save us.

Nietzsche himself turns out to have been a likable sort of guy. Despite his over-the-top persona as an “antichrist”, he always “remained a Christian”, according to Young, if not theologically then at least “emotionally.” And despite his hatred of slipshod scholarship, he had no truck with the petty pedantry of the “anal-retentive control-freak”. Politically, he was not really an individualist, still less a disagreeable elitist or an apostle of violence: he would have hated the “war on terror” and “mass hysteria” over “the death of Princess Di”, and as an advocate of “soft” power he would have opposed the invasion of Iraq; indeed for all his affectations of belligerence, he would have shunned the “neo-cons” and “supported the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament”.

But what if – like Nietzsche’s radical followers a century ago – we prefer the extremism and outlandishness that lie on the surface of Nietzsche’s writings to the sensible opinions that may be buried beneath them? “Take away the paradox from the philosopher,” as Søren Kierkegaard once said, “and all you are left with is a professor.” What if the mischief is the message? “One wants to be understood when one writes,” as Nietzsche confessed; but “one also wants – quite as certainly – not to be understood.” If an argument looks rough and murky, it may be best to leave it that way, and interpreters who buff it up till they can see their faces in it may be doing their author a disservice. “This might just have been the intention of the author,” Nietzsche continued: “perhaps he did not want to be understood by ‘anyone’.” He was not very interested in the kinds of truths we have to sit on, like hens hoping to hatch an egg: he preferred those that dance in the sunlight and then disappear – “truths of a peculiar shyness and ticklishness,” as he put it, “truths that must be taken by surprise.”

Julian Young’s Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Religion and Friedrich Nietzsche: a Philosophical Biography are published by Cambridge University Press