Book Review: Human, All Too Human – Nietzsche

Introduction

Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits was published by Friedrich Nietzsche in 1878 and represents a “monument of a crisis” for Nietzsche, a critical turning point in his life and thought.

His long friendship with Richard Wagner had come to a halt. Moreover, Nietzsche’s bad health forced him to leave his professorship at the University of Basel, where he taught for around 10 years. Since his childhood, he had been plagued with moments of short-sightedness that left him nearly blind, migraine headaches, and violent indigestion.

However, it wasn’t just his health but his conviction that academic life was a hindrance to a true philosopher which prompted his departure.

Human, All Too Human marks the beginning of a second period in Nietzsche’s philosophy, his period as an independent philosopher. He embraces 18th century Enlightenment, rejecting the romanticism that had characterised his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy, inspired by Richard Wagner.

Nietzsche also rejected the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer, who proposed that one must separate oneself from the will to reduce suffering, since human existence is an endless insatiable striving. Nietzsche characterised this ascetic attitude as a “will to nothingness”.

He proposes the “will to power”, in which all life is striving and self-overcoming.  Although this idea is not yet expressed in Human, All Too Human – the notion of the will to power is here in embryo.

Nietzsche’s lifelong theme was one of overcoming: health is the overcoming of sickness; the values of one society are overcome by the next; each stage of an individual’s life is a self-overcoming.

The Structure of the Work

This book marks a turning point in terms of Nietzsche’s style, with his use of the aphorism. The 638 aphorisms of Human, All Too Human range from a few words to a few pages, but most are short paragraphs. It represents an unsystematic approach to philosophy, contrary to previous philosophers who tried to have an explanation for everything. This style best represents Nietzsche’s philosophy.

The work suggests that human fallibilities – not strengths – are to be the focus of attention. Nietzsche believes that maxims about human nature can help in overcoming life’s hard moments. There is an implicit drive to overcome what is “human, all too human” through philosophy.

Preface

In the Preface,  Nietzsche elaborates on the concept of free spirits, to whom the book is directed to:

“Thus I invented, when I needed them, the “free spirits” too, to whom this heavyhearted-stouthearted book with the title “Human, All Too Human” is dedicated. There are no such “free spirits”… but, as I said, I needed their company at the time, to be of good cheer in the midst of bad things (illness, isolation, foreignness, sloth, inactivity); as brave fellows and spectres to chat and laugh with, when one feels like chatting and laughing… That there could someday be such free spirits… real and palpable… I am the last person to want to doubt that. I already see them coming, slowly, slowly…”

Preface, §1

For Nietzsche, the free spirit experiences “a great liberation” and breaks away from the traditions that previously kept it “fettered”.

Human, All Too Human is divided into nine sections.

I. Of First and Last Things

In the first section, “Of First and Last Things”, Nietzsche traces the origin of metaphysical beliefs from physiological causes, such as dreams, to psychological causes, such as dissatisfaction with oneself, or to language itself.

Nietzsche writes of language that:

“The shaper of language was not so modest as to think that he was only giving things labels; rather he imagined that he was expressing the highest knowledge of things with words, and in fact, language is the first stage of scientific effort.”

Human, All Too Human, §11

He concludes that we can know nothing positive about a metaphysical world, even if it should exist. In fact, our knowledge of it:

“would be the most inconsequential of all knowledge, even more inconsequential than the knowledge of the chemical analysis of water must be to the boatman facing a storm.”

Human, All Too Human, §9

This theme expresses Nietzsche’s “bliss in the unhappiness of knowledge”. For giving up metaphysical convictions the philosopher also gains the chance for greater freedom.

II. On the History of Moral Feelings

Section 2, “On the History of Moral Feelings”, is inspired by his friend Paul Rée’s “On the Origin of Moral Sensations”, and anticipates Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals”.

Nietzsche examines the history of moral feelings as a way to “alleviate the burden of living”. He takes a closer look on the origin of morality, exposing the falsity of the ideas of good and evil. Nietzsche goes beyond good and evil, as he considers himself an immoralist. In fact, morality is equivalent to custom.

“To be moral, correct, ethical, means to obey an age-old law or tradition… We call “good” the man who does the moral thing as if by nature… easily, and gladly, whatever it is… To be evil is to be “not moral” (immoral), to practise bad habits, go against tradition, however reasonable or stupid it may be… When men determine between moral and immoral, good and evil, the basic opposites is not “egoism” and “selflessness”, but rather adherence to a tradition or law, and release from it.”

Human, All Too Human, §96

III. Religious Life

The third section “Religious Life”, analyses religious worship from a psychological viewpoint.

“Without blind disciples, no man or his work has ever gained great influence. Sometimes, to promote the triumph of a form of knowledge means only that one weds it to stupidity, so that the weight of the stupidity also forces the triumph of the knowledge.”

Human, All Too Human, §122

The ascetic way of life is another way of man to wage war: this time, against a part of himself.

“There exists a defiance against oneself that includes among its most sublime expressions various forms of asceticism… it finally occurs to them to tyrannise certain parts of their own being… some virtually beg to be despised by others… This shattering of oneself, this scorn for one’s own nature… which religions have made so much out of, is actually a very high degree of vanity.”

Human, All Too Human, §137

IV. From the Soul of Artists and Writers

In the fourth section “From the Soul of Artists and Writers”, the aesthetic experience is taken to task. Nietzsche attacks the idea of divine inspiration in art, he claims that it is not the result of a miracle, but rather of hard work. Though he does not name Wagner, he is implicitly mentioned in the word artist, symbolising Nietzsche’s break with romanticism.

He champions preromantic artists such as Voltaire and Goethe. Nietzsche’s “philosophising with a hammer” is anticipated, for his prime aim is not so much to construct new systems of values or beliefs as to shatter the old, erroneous ways of thinking.

V. Signs of Higher and Lower Culture

In section five “Signs of Higher and Lower Culture”, Nietzsche presents his own answer to the demolition he has just accomplished, formulating at depth the idea of “free spirit”, which is to evolve in his later works into the sage Zarathustra, who paves the way for the Ubermensch, the ultimate form of man and highest pinnacle of self-overcoming.

Nietzsche outlines the function of the free spirit within a culture: it is his role to challenge the old, the conventional, to wound the society at its vulnerable spot, to take upon himself the fear of the society in order to promote its growth and development.

The free spirit is the symbol of the new, positive direction to Nietzsche’s thought, it is essentially the philosopher as Nietzsche sees him.

For while there is no Truth for Nietzsche – neither in metaphysical, moral, religious nor aesthetic terms – there are truths, and it is these which the free spirit will seek out, since:

“No honey is sweeter than that of knowledge”

Human, All Too Human, §292.

His fundamental tenet that truth is never absolute but subjective and the rejection of the primacy of any philosophical system, has allowed Existentialism to claim Nietzsche as one of its spiritual forefathers.

VI. Man in Society

In section 6 “Man in Society” Nietzsche writes about the worldliness of the manners of society. He observes the dodges and the hypocrisy and cunning in everyday intercourse.

VII. Woman and Child

In section 7 “Woman and Child”, he makes psychological observations such as:

“Everyone carries within him an image of woman which he gets from his mother”

Human, All Too Human, §380

And:

“Usually a mother loves herself in her son more than she loves the son himself.”

Human, All Too Human, §385

Nietzsche expresses hope for the future of women. However, he concludes that marriage and the life of the free spirit are incompatible:

“Will free spirits live with women? In general, I believe that, as the true-thinking, truth-speaking men of the present, they must, like the prophetic birds of ancient times, prefer to fly alone.”

Human, All Too Human, § 426

VIII. A Look at the State

In section 8 “A Look at the State”, Nietzsche analyses the structures of power in the state. He sees the claim of the lower classes for their share not as an outcry for social justice, but only as the beast’s roar at food he cannot have.

Like religion, Nietzsche’s intention is to proclaim “the death of the state”.

IX. Man Alone with Himself

The final section “Man Alone with Himself” contains a poetic quality, almost a kind of mellow resignation at times:

“However far man may extend himself with knowledge, however objective he may appear to himself – ultimately he carries away with him nothing but his own biography”

Human, All Too Human, §513

We see Nietzsche as the solitary wanderer enjoying his own counsel, anticipating “The Wanderer and His Shadow”, and ultimately the figure of Zarathustra.

Among Friends: An Epilogue

“Fine, with one another silent,

Finer, with one another laughing –

Under heaven is silky cloth

Leaning over books and moss

With friends lightly, loudly laughing

Each one showing white teeth shining.

If I did well, let us be silent,

If I did badly, let us laugh

And do it bad again by half,

More badly done, more badly laugh,

Until the grave, when down we climb.

Friends! Well! What do you say?

Amen! Until we meet again!”


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Human All Too Human | Friedrich Nietzsche

Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits was published by Friedrich Nietzsche in 1878 and represents a “monument of a crisis” for Nietzsche, a critical turning point in his life and thought.


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In Pursuit of Meaning (philosophy & psychology)

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Human, All Too Human – Nietzsche

  1. Thank you for this. I have always found Nietzsche a troubling character, difficult to get to grips with intellectually, though my instincts also view him as vitally important. Your review here is a very accessible introduction to this challenging work.

    Liked by 1 person

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