Book Review: The Gay Science – Nietzsche

The Gay Science is one of Nietzsche’s most beautiful and important books. He describes it as “the most personal of all his books”. When inquired on why he chose this title to his book, he wrote in a letter:

“As for the title ‘Gay Science’, I thought only of the gaya scienza of the troubadours – hence also the little verses.”

– Nietzsche’s letter to Erwin Rohde (1882-83)

The Provençal troubadours were performers of lyric poetry specialising in the art of composing love poetry or “gai saber”. Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil:

“Love as passion – which is our European specialty – must absolutely be of noble origin; as is well known, its invention is due to the Provençal knight-poets, those magnificent and inventive human beings of ‘gai saber’ to whom Europe owes so many things and almost owes itself.”

– Beyond Good and Evil, §260

Science implies seriousness, discipline, and rigor, while Nietzsche accepts this – he proposes to go further, adding singing, dancing, and laughter.

“Where laughter and gaiety are found, thinking does not amount to anything”.

– The Gay Science, §327

Gay Science has the overtones of a light-hearted defiance of convention; it suggests Nietzsche’s “immoralism” and his “revaluation of all values”. In Nietzsche’s own words, one must strive to be an:

“Artistic Socrates”

– The Birth of Tragedy, §14

A philosopher with both an intellectual conscience and with a feeling for art. Nietzsche recommends the artistic style of life that he considers his own life to be an example of. As well as a philosopher, he counts himself among the poets and artists.

The book contains Nietzsche’s first proclamation of the death of God, as well as the eternal recurrence. It also contains some of his most sustained discussions on knowledge and truth, the intellectual conscience, and the miseries that accompany religion and morality, warning us against the “preachers of morality”.

The book is written in Nietzsche’s aphoristic style consisting of short paragraphs covering a variety of themes. This style was unparalleled in the history of philosophy. Some hypothesise that it was born out of his terrible vision and headaches, which forced him to quickly write down a few ideas at a time, or as he would put it – to philosophise with a hammer.

The book starts with Nietzsche’s preface followed by a Prelude in Rhymes. It is composed of 383 aphorisms divided into five books and ends with an appendix of songs. The book contains the largest collection of Nietzsche’s poetry that he himself ever published.

Nietzsche’s first edition ended in Book IV and was published in 1882. The last section titled “Incipit tragoedia”, consists literally of the beginning of his next book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The second edition which includes Book V was not published until 1887, after Beyond Good and Evil.

What may at first seem to be a haphazard sequence of aphorisms turns out to be a carefully crafted composition. The structure should be seen as part of a long train of thought, instead of isolated aphorisms.

In the preface, Nietzsche speaks of the gratitude of a convalescent:

“This whole book is nothing but a bit of merry-making after long privation and powerlessness, the rejoicing of strength that is returning, of a reawakened faith in a tomorrow […]”

– The Gay Science, Preface

The history of philosophy is filled with a great deal of sick thinkers, which are misled on account of their suffering. However, Nietzsche tells us that from such abysses, from such severe sickness, one returns new-born. One should not philosophise with one’s deprivations, but with one’s riches and strengths. He proclaims a return to the lifestyle of the Greeks, the Dionysian lifestyle.

The Prelude in Rhymes include pithy remarks such as:

“I do not love my neighbour near,

but wish he were high up and far.

How else could he become my star?”

– Prelude in German Rhymes, The Neighbour, §30

“He should be praised for climbing; yet

The other man comes always from a height

And lives where praise can never get –

Beyond your sight.”

– Prelude in German Rhymes, Higher Men, §60

There is a steady crescendo throughout the book. Book I is inferior to what follows; Book II gradually picks up strength; Book III is far better still. However, Book IV, titled “Sanctus Januarius” is most impressive. Nietzsche wrote to his friend Peter Gast:

“The Gay Science has come; I immediately send you the first copy […] Read, for example, the conclusions of Books II and III […] Above all: is Sanctus Januarius at all comprehensible? After everything I have experienced since I am among men, my doubt about that is tremendous!”

– Nietzsche’s Letter to Peter Gast, August 20, 1882

The title of Book IV “Sanctus Januarius” has a double meaning: it means Holy January (he published the book on January 1882), as well as the miracle of Saint Januarius, whose blood is kept in a vial in a Church and by virtue of a miracle, becomes liquid again on a certain feast day. After a period of convalescence, Nietzsche feels that his own blood has become liquid again.

“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”

– The Gay Science, §276

Book V, titled “We Fearless Ones”, is late Nietzsche and belongs with the major works of his maturity. The addition of Book V makes it clear that Nietzsche did not consider this book dated by his other masterpieces. It mirrors Nietzsche’s thoughts in such a way that it is a work of art in itself.

God is Dead

God is Dead

The most well-known aphorism is the parable of the madman, where Nietzsche proclaims the death of God:

“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” – As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another […] The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers […] Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement? What sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? […]”

– The Gay Science, §125

The death of God is one of Nietzsche’s most popular and misinterpreted statements. It is not a celebratory statement, but a tragic historical event in response to the decline of Christianity with the Enlightenment bringing about scientific rationality. It represents a crisis in the existing moral values opening the possibility for nihilism.

Nietzsche suggests that this question was not yet asked widely, but that before long the sense that whatever we do is hardly of any consequence will spread like a disease. This terrifying sense of weightlessness is nihilism.

What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism […] For some time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe […].”

– The Will to Power, Preface

The Eternal Recurrence

Eternal Recurrence

One of Nietzsche’s response to nihilism is his doctrine of the eternal recurrence, described under the title “The greatest weight”. Though he hints at it in The Gay Science, it gains a crucial importance in his next book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

The eternal recurrence supposes that you’d have to experience the same life, with the same events and same experiences, repeated for eternity. Nietzsche raises the hypothetical question of how you would react if a demon spelled it out to you.

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” […]

– The Gay Science, §341

Nietzsche suggests that most people would consider this a curse and that it would require the most impassioned love of life

“to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal.”

– The Gay Science, §341

The overman, introduced in Thus Spoke Zarathustra as God’s successor, is the “meaning of the earth” and is the type that would be able to gladly accept the eternal recurrence.

The Overman

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The Gay Science in 10 Minutes | Friedrich Nietzsche

The Gay Science is one of Nietzsche’s most beautiful and important books. He describes it as “the most personal of all his books”.


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In Pursuit of Meaning (philosophy & psychology)

6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Gay Science – Nietzsche

      1. Yeah Nietzsche’s got some great books! I haven’t heard about that one, but I googled it and it sounds fascinating, his lectures as a philologist at Basel University, I’ve got to add that to my list.

        Liked by 1 person

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