Book Review: Twilight of the Idols – Nietzsche

In 1888, the last sane year of Nietzsche’s life, he produced two brief but devastating books: Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ.

Originally titled The Idle Hours of a Psychologist, it was renamed Twilight of the Idols or, How to Philosophise with a Hammer by recommendation of Peter Gast, who urged him to find something more “splendid”. It offers a lightning tour of his whole philosophy, preparing the way for The Anti-Christ, a final assault on institutional Christianity.

Heinrich Köselitz or Peter Gast is known for his longtime relationship with Friedrich Nietzsche

As Nietzsche was starting to become recognised, he felt that he needed a short text that would serve as an introduction to his thought. In a letter, he wrote:

“This style is my philosophy in a nutshell – radically up to criminal…”

Nietzsche’s Letter To Georg Brandes, Turin, 20 October 1888.

Georg Brandes - Wikipedia, entziklopedia askea.
Danish philosopher Georg Brandes called Nietzsche’s philosophy “aristocratic radicalism”. Nietzsche replied: ” The expression ‘aristocratic radicalism’, which you employ, is very good. It is, permit me to say, the cleverest thing that I have yet read about myself.”

The book is divided into twelve sections.

1. Foreword

In the Foreword, Nietzsche speaks of a “grand declaration of war” on all the prevalent ideas of his time.

He uses the word “idols” in the title of his book to refer to the worship of false ideas of god. He seeks to philosophise with a hammer and gently tap or “sound out” these idols. In order to receive that hollow sound which speaks of false and empty ideas of gods that we idolise.

2. Maxims and Arrows

The book starts off with his Maxims and Arrows, which includes some of his most celebrated quotes:

Which is it? Is man only God’s mistake or God only man’s mistake?

  • Maxims and Arrows, 7.

What does not kill me makes me stronger.

  • Maxims and Arrows, 8.

If we possess our why of life we can put up with almost any how.

  • Maxims and Arrows, 12.

Without music life would be a mistake.

  • Maxims and Arrows, 33

3. The Problem of Socrates

In The Problem of Socrates, Nietzsche asserts that ancient philosophers had shared a common belief that life is worthless. He criticised that the consensus of the wise is proof of truth. He holds Socrates in special contempt. The dialectic or Socratic method is an expression of revolt, born out of the resentment of the rabble.

He challenges the Socratic equation reason = virtue = happiness. Nietzsche values instinct over reason, since “happiness and instinct are one”.

He uses the word French word décadence or “decadence” various times throughout the book, describing systems of thought that spring from illness and weakness, such as the formula of rationality at any cost, in opposition to instincts.

4. “Reason” in Philosophy

In the next essay titled “Reason” in Philosophy, Nietzsche calls “Reason” as the cause of our falsification of the evidence of the senses, philosophers escaped from the senses which they believed deceived us from the “real world”.

Nietzsche says that:

“The ‘apparent’ world is the only one: the ‘real’ world has only been lyingly added…”

If one is to accept a non-sensory, unchanging world as superior and our sensory world as inferior, one is adopting a hatred of nature and thus a hatred of the sensory world – the world of the living.

Nietzsche goes on to attack Christianity and the concept of Heaven, a similar concept to Plato’s idea of the world of forms (a changeless, eternal world). The tendency to divide the world into “real” (heaven) and the apparent (living) world, makes people despise this life. Therefore, it is a suggestion of decadence, of declining life.

He praises the Pre-Socratic Heraclitus and his idea of becoming, an ever-present change or flux, which had a major impact on his philosophy.

5. How the “Real World” at last Became a Myth

The next section, “How the “Real World” at last Became a Myth” is a fascinating one.

Nietzsche demonstrates the process by which myth and storytelling are of greater influence than the direct experience of reality. The idea suggests that we may doubt our senses when it conflicts with fiction. It contains six stages outlining the “History of an Error.”

The first four are a de-valuation of an Ideal. In Platonism, the “real world” is attainable through wisdom, in Christianity it is attainable at death, in Kant, it is beyond human knowledge and in Positivism, knowledge of this world suffices.

The last two stages are Nietzsche’s revaluation of an Ideal. He describes the “real world” as a useless idea and calls for a Revaluation of All Values, embodied in the image of Zarathustra, the zenith of mankind, the ultimate Yes-sayer.

6. Morality as Anti-Nature

In Morality as Anti-Nature, Nietzsche reiterates the importance of a healthy morality dominated by an instinct of life. Anti-natural morality, however, is what had always been taught, turning against the instincts of life, becoming enemies of life.

Nietzsche is not a hedonist; he argues that any passions in excess can “drag their victim down with the weight of their folly”. However, he maintains that it is possible for the passions to become “spiritualised”.

Christianity, on the other hand, emphasises its discipline on extirpation, its “cure” is castration. In other words, it attempts to remove the passion completely. It is too weak-willed to impose moderation upon itself, it is hostile to life.

He also calls Schopenhauer’s morality, the “denial of the Will-to-Live”, as the instinct of decadence itself.

Nietzsche champions the spiritualisation of love and enmity Valuing one’s enemies or opponents helps us to define and strengthen our own positions. These are great triumphs over Christianity.

Nietzsche makes it clear that he does not want to eliminate the Christian Church. He recognises that his own philosophy would not be as necessary without it. However, the real “blasphemy” is the Christian “rebellion against life”, which is what Nietzsche attacks.

He concludes that it is “immoralists” such as himself, who must seek their honour in affirming, without valuing one person’s approach over the others.

7. The Four Great Errors

In the chapter, The Four Great Errors, Nietzsche lays out four mistakes of human reason regarding causal relationships that are the basis of all religion and morality. These errors are key for his Revaluation of All Values: the error of confusing cause and consequence, the error of a false causality, the error of imaginary causes, and the error of free will.

Nietzsche denies the concept of “human accountability”, which, he argues, was an invention of religious figures to hold power over mankind.

“Do this and this, refrain from this and this – and you will be happy! Otherwise…”

Free will, Nietzsche thinks, has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is of finding guilty. Thus, he rejects free will as a psychological error.

“Men were thought of as ‘free’ so that they could become guilty; consequently, every action had to be thought of as willed, the origin of every action as lying in the consciousness…”

The internal psychological states that we cannot consciously control such as “happiness” are the true causes of virtuous behaviour, not the human will.

8. The “Improvers” of Mankind

In the next passage, The ‘Improvers’ of Mankind, he proclaims that “there are no moral facts”.

In all ages one has wanted to improve men, this above all is what morality has meant. He calls these people “improvers”. The first example is that of religion, which corrupted the human being, weakened him – but claimed to have “improved him”.

The second example is that of the caste system in India, attempting to moralise man by dehumanising the chandala or so-called “untouchables” who were at the very bottom of society.

9. What The Germans Lack

In “What The Germans Lack”, Nietzsche attributes the decline he sees in the sophistication in German thought to prioritising politics over the intellect. Culture and the state are antagonists and all great cultural epochs are epochs of political decline.

Nietzsche also attributes this decline to the problem of higher education in his day. He argues that educators must teach three vital skills: seeing (“the ability to think before acting on impulse”), thinking (“learned in the way dancing has to be learned”) and speaking and writing (“one has to be able to dance with the pen”).

“All higher education belongs to the exceptions alone: one must be privileged to have a right to so high a privilege. Great and fine things can never be common property.”

10. Expeditions of an Untimely Man

In the longest chapter of the book “Expeditions of an Untimely Man”, Nietzsche examines a variety of cultural figures of his day. He states that most have “the vulgar ambition to possess generous feelings.”

Some notable passages mention the Apollonian and Dionysian ways of life, conceived as forms of intoxication.

He also praises Dostoevsky as “the only psychologist from whom I had anything to learn…”, as well as placing Napoleon and Goethe as ideal figures for the ubermensch.

At the end, he writes:

¨My ambition is to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book – what everyone else does not say in a book…”

11. What I owe to the Ancients

In What I owe to the Ancients, Nietzsche criticises Plato and goes further to claim that “Christianity is Platonism for the people” in its harmful morality. At the end, he turns to the Dionysian lifestyle, to the “eternal joy of becoming”:

“I, the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus – I, the teacher of the eternal recurrence.”

12. The Hammer Speaks

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog – Caspar D. Friedrich

The last part of the book “The Hammer Speaks” is taken from Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

And if your hardness will not flash and cut and cut to pieces: how can you one day – create with me? […] For all creators are hard […] harder than metal, nobler than metal. Only the noblest is perfectly hard. This new law-table do I put over you, O my brothers: Become hard!

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part III, “Of Old and New Law-Tables”

Twilight of the Idols in 10 Minutes | Nietzsche

Twilight of the Idols or How to Philosophise with a Hammer is one of Nietzsche’s last books, written in 1888. As Nietzsche was starting to become recognised, he felt that he needed a short text that would serve as an introduction to his thought.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Twilight of the Idols – Nietzsche

  1. Was his mental illness a result of his uncompromising philosophy applied to himself, hardness of will?

    1. His philosophy and personality certainly made him a peculiar, eccentric and isolated person. However. As far as we know, in 1889, while walking in the streets in Turin, Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown. Nietzsche collapsed in the street after seeing a horse being flogged by its owner, throwing himself towards the animal and embracing it, although this is a famous event and movies adapted such as The Turin Horse, there is little evidence of it ever occurring. The episode seems similar to a passage which occurs early on in Crime and Punishment, a book of one of Nietzsche’s most revered writers: Dostoevsky.

      He was diagnosed with syphilis, but this claim has since been challenged and a diagnosis of manic-depressive illness with a periodic psychosis followed by dementia, explained by the slow growth of a tumor, was put forward.

      Shortly after, he remained in a near catatonic state for the last 11 years of his life. He died in 1900.

      He also wrote letters for a short period of time called the “Madness Letters” and signing them alternatively as “Dionysus” or “The Crucified”.

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