Basic Writings of Nietzsche
by Friedrich Nietzsche

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

edited and translated, with commentaries, by Walter Kaufmann

The Modern Library / Random House: 1968

845 pages June 2010

Reading Nietzsche in English

Nietzsche is one of the few philosophers since Plato whom large numbers of intelligent people read for pleasure. ...

There are no signs that interest in Nietzsche is flagging. He is more widely read and studied than ever; only the perspectives keep changing. Once it was the fashion to link him with Darwin and evolutionary thought, but his reputation did not pass with this fashion, and it actually gained when more and more writers came to realize the inadequacy of such an interpretation. The same goes for later vogues. What gradually becomes more and more obvious is the unexampled richness of Nietzsche's thought.

Walter Kaufmann
General Introduction

Sie liest: Nietzsche (small)

Following Walter Kaufmann's landmark study Nietzsche, and his earlier big annotated collection The Portable Nietzsche, this second omnibus volume, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, appeared in 1968. (Our reviews of the two collections complement each other and partially overlap.) The translated books also are available separately. Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas often are path-breaking, his language subtle, and his style scintillating — he is notoriously difficult to translate, but surely no less worthwhile for that.

Walter Kaufmann is a native speaker of both German and English, with a flair for melding the translator's goals of accurate meaning and idiomatic readability, even with poetic flights when these are called for — Nietzsche being a poet as well as a master stylist in prose. Additionally, Kaufmann has done considerable other work with philosophy and religion, the history of ideas, and literary criticism from the classics to the moderns. Given the nature of languages no translation will be perfect, but Kaufmann's are the standard in English for Nietzsche's major works.

Part of the delight in reading Kaufmann's translations lies in the footnotes where he points out some Nietzschean stylistic choices, wordplay, even puns, and makes these accessible to readers without German but with antennae for the structure of English words and phrases. Nietzsche is vastly easier to read than most of the leaden-pen claimants to philosophical writing, and Kaufmann's translations first brought this readability to English. In addition to footnotes, Kaufmann provides a general introduction and specific introductions for each of the included books.

It's important that the reader of Nietzsche in English be aware that translations before Kaufmann's run from not-so-good to downright awful; don't buy older editions with pre-1950 translations or cheap modern reprints of them. See Kaufmann's comments in The Portable Nietzsche for some counter-instances of truly bad older translator's choices for a few passages.

Kaufmann's second omnibus volume of Nietzsche

In about 850 pages, Basic Writings of Nietzsche gives us five books complete, three quite substantial and the other two exemplars of personal insight; these are supplemented with a thirty-page intellectual teaser of aphorisms from five other volumes. The five complete books are Nietzsche's first, The Birth of Tragedy; the epoch-challenging Beyond Good and Evil; the pioneering psychological study On the Genealogy of Morals; the late, short, and sharp The Case of Wagner, and the posthumous afterword and self-overview Ecce Homo — the last of these should only be read after one is familiar with all of Nietzsche's other books. The included volumes will be reviewed individually at Troynovant.

This is an excellent, important collection in fine translations: I cannot recommend it too highly.

The will to truth which will still tempt us to many a venture, that famous truthfulness of which all philosophers so far have spoken with respect — what questions has this will to truth not laid before us! What strange, wicked, questionable questions! That is a long story even now — and yet it seems as if it had scarcely begun. Is it any wonder that we should finally become suspicious, lose patience, and turn away impatiently? that we should finally learn from this Sphinx to ask questions, too? Who is it really that puts questions to us here? What in us really wants "truth"?
Friedrich Nietzsche
"On the Prejudices of Philosophers"
Beyond Good and Evil  (1886)

Reading onward —

If this collection is your first look into Nietzsche, I advise you to begin at the beginning and read your way through, taking your time. The challenges offered by each book here are quite different, as are their approaches; but Kaufmann provides a solid selection of Nietzsche in a single volume, and by proceeding from page one, we see something of both the breadth and the evolution of Nietzsche's thought. If you have a school assignment to read a particular work, or worse, just an excerpt, then you're stuck; but I still recommend you reading some of the other material alongside your assignment if possible, and of course, coming back to the book later. Rather than reading the teaser aphorisms out of their context, I recommend reading those other five books entire.

For further reading, Kaufmann's other major Nietzsche translations can be found in another superb omnibus collection, The Portable Nietzsche; as well as the important individual volume, The Gay Science; and a posthumous collection of notes, The Will to Power (the latter with R. J. Hollingdale).

Walter Kaufmann's respect for Nietzsche and his empathetic care with presenting his works in English shine through Basic Writings of Nietzsche. It is unfortunate that America and Britain could not have had such a compendium fifty years earlier.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

Sie liest: "Nietzsche"
(She reads: "Nietzsche")
Vienna, 1920

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