Today’s reading begins with an interesting claim:
What happens when barbarians come into contact with a higher culture—the lower culture always accepts first of all the vices, weaknesses, and excesses, and only then, on that basis, finds a certain attraction in the higher culture and eventually, by way of the vices and weaknesses that it has acquired, also accepts some of the overflow of what really has value… (II.99)
This could have become a long political treatise (even if on the surface I disagree with it). Instead, Nietzsche uses this claim to draw a parallel between the actions of barbarians relative to civilization and the delight of readers with their favorite philosopher. And that point, at least, I can agree with. All too often we read something and take away from it confirmation of our own base impulses or bad ideas, rather than what wisdom and virtue we might have gained from that author. We might think of the (possibly apocryphal?) story of H. G. Wells reading Plato’s Republic and thinking to himself that free love sounded like a pretty good plan for a state.
This trend becomes worse when one great thinker does this to another, as Nietzsche thought that Wagner had done to Schopenhauer. And while I cannot speak to the detailed exposition of the relationship between Schopenhauer and Wagner, I can say that Nietzsche is right about all of us being able to sort the bad from the good when reading the works of a great philosopher—otherwise how could we in good conscience read anything by Nietzsche?
Perhaps what we need to do instead of adapting to the worst of great philosophers is to be able to “pay homage” to show our gratitude to them for paving the way for the rest of us. The problem is, when we are on new ground we find it very difficult to do so. New territory (whether philosophically or otherwise) means that the old vocabulary of gratitude no longer is appropriate, and time must be invested in developing something new:
Whole generations are required merely to invent a polite convention for thanks; and it is only very late that we reach the moment when gratitude acquires a kind of spirit and genius. (II.100)
At that point, of course, the person who broke the ground is gone and only his descendants are left—who are quite willing to accept the thanks for the work of that past. (Nietzsche makes no comment on whether or not they are continuing the work.)
“Gratitude,” then, becomes a point of transition from Nietzsche’s discussion of authors to his discussion of language and speech. Language is related to culture and time—some words and phrases are appropriate at one time and place but inappropriate elsewhere. Or in the same setting in a different culture (II.101). This is a challenge when we are reading the great books of the past, and it means that we need those few dedicated souls who are willing to do the “dirty work” of bringing them into the present even when no one else seems interested (II.102). Clearly this could be the lament of classicists everywhere…
Yet, although language develops over time, the times are themselves influenced by language. Nietzsche gives a quick outline of the development of the modern German language and discusses how its sound influences and is influenced by various speakers and hearers. I’m not a philologist, so I can’t speak much to whether Nietzsche’s history is correct, but Nietzsche’s ideas about language are picked up and run with (at times in quite silly directions) by twentieth-century philosophers.
The same may be said of music and even art in general—though Nietzsche sticks to German music (which he likes) and German artists (which he really likes, on rare occasions). Art captures something true about the beauty of existence, but at the same time is itself shaped by the beauty of existence.
More on Nietzsche on art and music next time.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.