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A Reading of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil

Lecturer: Martin Black

Originally Taught: Winter School 2011

This course examine a key text by a thinker who is among those who has the greatest influence on our thought and so our practice in modern times. Nietzsche’s influence extends far beyond those who study his works, it extends, for example, as far as anyone who uses the word “values” to describe the relation between human beings and the principles of their thought and action. What did Nietzsche intend by this and other aspects of the revolution in our self-understanding that he sought to bring about?

Nietzsche was perhaps the most philosophical of those thinkers and artists who seemed to be prophets of the intellectual or spiritual crisis, and the subsequent political revolutions and crimes, world wars, and other convulsions of the twentieth century. Subsequent events seem only to have exacerbated the conditions Nietzsche originally diagnosed and so his thought seems likely to become only more relevant in the twenty-first century as this crisis deepens and works itself into new forms. However, the meaning of Nietzsche’s analysis of and proposal for overcoming this crisis is a matter of great controversy. In the first place, Nietzsche himself seems to forbid access to what he considered his deepest thoughts, while simultaneously inviting misinterpretation by writing in an incendiary manner on all sorts of topics of popular and political interest. Secondly, Nietzsche’s response to the crisis of modernity as nihilism or decadence excoriates the “modern ideas” of democracy, equal rights, commercial society, and so on. These factors have led much of the explicit commentary on Nietzsche astray, whether in condemnation or praise of his supposed political views, or in attempting to dissolve the link between politics and philosophy in his thought.

In this course we will examine Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, which is commonly thought to give full expression to Nietzsche’s mature views, in order to elucidate Nietzsche’s intention and evaluate his evidence for it. Each day’s discussion will focus on a small number of aphorisms from across the book. The chief foci will be: Nietzsche’s evaluation of our current age and the problem it presents; Nietzsche’s political and philosophical intentions for the future; and the understanding of philosophy and human nature that underpins both the diagnosis and the cure. It will be proposed in conclusion that Nietzsche’s project issues from the acceptance and radical thinking through of certain principles of early modern philosophy, as he himself suggests. Nietzsche’s interpretation of nature, including human nature, as wholly historical or constructed may be challenged if we can question those principles. But in any case, if it plausible, this proposal helps explain the great power Nietzsche’s thought has for us.

Brief criticisms will be suggested of some of the more influential interpretations of Nietzsche, including Heidegger’s, which appears to be the most philosophical of these. However, as with all philosophical texts, Nietzsche’s is both apparently familiar and actually inexhaustible: the main purpose of the course is to prepare your own confrontation with the book and its issues.

Translation of BGE: The translation used in the course will be that of Judith Norman (corrected imprint: Cambridge, 2009). The older versions by R. J. Hollingdale (London: 1990; later imprints have the same translation) and W. Kaufmann (Random House) are also good, although the latter is deformed by the editor’s vanity. The latter two editions are usually available inexpensively at second hand. In June a PDF reader containing a translation of the main aphorisms to be discussed will be placed on the course website.

Preliminary Reading: Any reading in BGE itself will be beneficial. Paul Daniels is teaching a course on The Birth of Tragedy in week three of the Winter 2011 term and some reference to this important early work will be made in the first lecture. Additionally, Twilight of the Idols is a useful encapsulation of Nietzsche’s mature views that is closely related to the themes of BGE.