Nietzsche's Task
An Interpretation of Beyond Good and Evil
by Laurence Lampert

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Yale University Press; 2001

320 pages July 2007

Philosophical daylight

What was Nietzsche's task? It was the task of philosophy: gaining a comprehensive perspective on the world and on the human disposition toward the world, a perspective that could claim to be true. The older language can still be used if it is rebaptized with Nietzschean meanings: philosophy as the love of wisdom aims to overcome irrational interpretations with rational ones, interpretations guided by the mind, by spirited intellect Nietzscheanly conceived.

As a direct consequence of achieving that comprehensive perspective — for his two chief books, Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil, show that he achieved it — an additional task fell to Nietzsche, the task of political philosophy: making a place for that perspective in the lived world of human culture or doing justice to all things in the human disposition toward them. But given the sway of the irrational, making a place for the more rational in the midst of the irrational requires strategic finesse; it is a task for an artful writer who knows his audience and knows how to appeal to them.

Laurence Lampert
Introduction: "Nietzsche's Task"

Applying what principles of new-slanting daylight, writing in which manner or style, sharing what subtle degrees of perceptivity &mdash? How could anyone possibly proceed in writing a detailed commentary on Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil? A daunting range of qualities surely is required to appreciate and interpret one of the most challenging and subtle books ever written.

What are some of these qualities of appreciation? Perhaps the most basic is one most honored in the breach, endeavoring to see Nietzsche whole:

That they're dealing here with the long logic of a completely determinate philosophical sensibility and not with some mishmash of a hundred varied paradoxes and heterodoxes — of that, I believe, nothing has dawned on even my most favorable readers.

Nietzsche to Georg Brandes
8 January 1888

Sadly, many academic as well as popular philosophical laborers have not gotten as far as attempting a unified overview, let alone succeeding. Failure of an overview puts our next principle of interpretation on a very shaky foundation indeed, the need to understand the truth. For without this whole view, Nietzsche's claim as Lampert puts it, of gaining a comprehensive perspective on the world and on the human disposition toward the world, cannot be met. A perspective that could claim to be true? Any bits of truth rounded up will be patchy, obscure, catch-as-catch-can as they tumble from Nietzsche's slippery cornucopia of ideas.

The courage to tell the truth

Seeing the truth presumes also that a commentator requires the courage to tell the truth. After more than a century, Nietzsche remains a controversial author, to say the least — and I believe that most who know his name and something of his reputation really have no idea even yet how explosive he is. Although transformational ideas may be stated clearly and simply, we may not find them easy. One of Lampert's subheadings for his commentary on Nietzsche's chapter "The Free Mind" puts it very concisely:

The Central Matter:
The Maturation of Philosophy at the End of the Moral Period,
Or Can the True Win Independence from the Good
and the Good Learn Dependence on the True?

Are we really at the end of the Moral Period of our civilization? Can we survive without "immortal souls, and moral gods who reward and punish them"? Can we determine what is true about the world and our relations with it, without first fearfully asking — and self-censoring — Is this good? Are these good truths? Wicked thoughts indeed: a lover's problem.

Can we align what is good upon what is true?

And then can we reevaluate our ideas of the world and ourselves so that we align what is good upon what is true? For the alternative is to attempt to warp our values toward what is false, what is misunderstood or pretended, trustingly assumed or piously lied about. Indeed, such irrational or mendacious false values have powered so much of the history of the world to date that we may despair of ever finding an exit from the labyrinth of millennia, a way into sunlit clarity. It may require a bravery, or a toughness, that we do not have. Many, many leaders in the world, time out of mind, have presumed that we are not brave enough, or tough enough, to live in the true world as it is, this world, our world. Yet this is a lover's problem, we abandon it only at our utter cost.

Nietzsche's title and subtitle, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, requires that our interpreter have an ear and a sense of humor for wicked subtleties; and be able to cast a cold eye upon life and death, deep into past and future — while retaining a lover's appreciation and hope for humanity. For a real future for humanity that is in the long run livable must be based on the true, not a paradisal utopia based on promises of something else.

A Nietzschean complementary style

Yet if there are glimmers of light dawning, a Nietzschean Enlightenment on our horizon, how might a commentator on Beyond Good and Evil usefully re-present these thunder-and-lightning ideas, that Christianity is Platonism for the people and so forth? Our interpreter need not attempt to imitate Nietzsche's playful and shocking, experimenting and tempting style; rather to complement it. A Nietzschean complementary style might be clear, straightforward, helpfully annotative without distractions, above all insightful and sympathetic.

All easier said than done. To do his own task properly, our interpreter must know his audience and how to appeal to them, be able artfully to re-present esoteric Nietzschean ideas in a manner as compulsively readable as the original but with his own clarifying perspective, to create a riveting narrative worthy of its focus: a great book of philosophy and a noble work of humanity. For Beyond Good and Evil is a noble work, vastly repaying our time to understand it properly; an excellent interpretation of such a book truly must be a noble work in itself, as surprisingly beautiful as an offering of philosophy may be. To be given such a commentary, gratitude could be too small a word.

Lampert's close reading and analysis

Laurence Lampert's book-length commentary, Nietzsche's Task: An Interpretation of Beyond Good and Evil, has strong connections to his other studies of Nietzsche. Nietzsche's Task is a close reading and analysis, chapter by chapter and section by section, of the subject book. This parallels Lampert's earlier concentration on a single book, Nietzsche's Teaching: An Interpretation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1986).

The method of close reading is Straussian, as Lampert explains and exemplifies in his Leo Strauss and Nietzsche (1996), a study of Strauss' pivotal essay, "Note on the Plan of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil", and related matters Platonic, Nietzschean, and of Nietzsche contra Plato. Leo Strauss and Nietzsche approaches Beyond Good and Evil from another perspective than does Nietzsche's Task; I recommend reading Nietzsche's Task first, although Leo Strauss and Nietzsche is itself a fascinating study of philosophical impact and response.

For a grand and unmatched overview, see Lampert's Nietzsche and Modern Times: A Study of Bacon, Descartes, and Nietzsche (1993).

The dream of an ideal permanence and goodness

Beyond Good and Evil throws down a tremendous challenge, approached by Nietzsche in a deliberate, scintillating variety of ways, all followed illuminatingly by Lampert. Why is Plato so important in Nietzsche's view of history? Lampert summarizes Plato's alternative to the truth of the world, the dream of an ideal permanence and goodness — as rejected by Nietzsche:

If the "awful earnestness" of dogmatic philosophers was a poor means for winning truth's heart, earnestness is not discredited ... The demise of philosophical dogmatism leaves "good reasons for the hope" that its millennia-long rule will prove to be a noble childishness, mere apprenticeship. Perhaps dogmatic philosophy will be like astrology, "a promise across millennia," intrinsically worthless but producing a discipline that directs whole peoples and results in something great. ...

But the grateful heir knows that his inheritance includes something singularly dangerous: Plato's dogmatism is "the worst, most durable, most dangerous" of all errors so far. This judgment against Platonism, so full of superlatives, focuses on two of Plato's "inventions," "the pure mind and the good in itself." What is dangerous about Platonism is its epistemology and metaphysics, its view of knowing and being; it imagines that the human mind can be so purified of its prejudices and limitations that a permanent unitary ground of everything could become discernable by it.

[Beyond Good and Evil] as a whole will argue that the great danger of this epistemology and metaphysics was cultural and political: a philosophy that dreamed this dream proved vulnerable to capture by religion. Platonism paved the way for the rule of religion over philosophy. Platonism is, so far, the decisive event in Western history because its dangerous dream eventually cost the West its greatest achievement: the pre-Platonic Greek enlightenment.

Preface: "A Task for a Good European"

What is the way not taken by Plato?

And the way not taken by Plato? Could that be the way of truth? Nietzsche aligns himself with nature, science, the free mind, the very free spirits who want to face the truth no matter how difficult or dangerous. But why should we risk ourselves, our good feelings about ourselves and society?

Directing the whole majestic sweep of these five chapters [Beyond Good and Evil 5 - 9] is the rigorous pursuit of the single question with which the book began, that most dangerous of all questions: What is the value of the will to truth? ...

This was the question the young Nietzsche defined for himself in The Use and Disadvantages of History for Life, in which he first raised the issue of "true but deadly" teachings (UD 9). Even then Nietzsche contrasted himself with Plato, advocate of "the mighty necessary lie" securing society against deadly truth (UD 10). Platonism is still the key opponent in the last five chapters of Beyond Good and Evil, the view that for society as a whole the value of truth is far outweighed by the value of edifying untruth.

Because the ultimate opponent is a pampering Platonism, the argument of these five chapters — an argument for the value of truth — reaches its critical point in "Our Virtues" over the issue of suffering: How can the new teaching defend itself in the face of the suffering its truthfulness inflicts. Isn't it simply an advocacy of cruelty that proves its advocate demonic?

The defense appeals to nature as its foundation and to poetry as its instrument — not the poetry of noble lying but the poetry of beautifying truth. The morals and politics of the last five chapters of Beyond Good and Evil are the morals and politics of truthfulness, of the seamless fabric of loving truth and living with it.

5. "On the Natural History of Morality"

The Nietzschean Enlightenment, and the daybreak

Why should we risk facing the truth, living in the real world without the comforting falsehoods of millennia — unless we have to? And indeed, my friends, don't we have to? Is it not so that a real future for humanity that is in the long run livable must be based on the true, not a paradisal utopia based on promises of something else?

This is the Nietzschean Enlightenment that Laurence Lampert bespeaks with stunning clarity.

Could one accuse Nietzsche's Task of being very good Lampert but not so much Nietzsche? I think not; that everything is deftly fitted into the unified overview is the best evidence of this. I can convey here only a hint of the sweep of Nietzsche's Task. Lampert touches on his own reactions lightly and restrainedly, but allows Nietzsche to breathe forth as living inspiration. The book's straightforward integration is presented in a smooth and lively style that is a joy to read, great riches in a little room. And sometimes Lampert touches his tuning fork to Nietzschean gold with such perfect finesse that the true note still rings in my ears. — I'll urge you to look for these yourself, or find your own music here.

Nietzsche's Task is so clearly presented that one might profitably read it even before venturing into Beyond Good and Evil itself. But they are best read alternately. There is a lot of daylight here.


© 2007 Robert Wilfred Franson

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