The Untimely Meditations – Review

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Last time we met Nietzsche, he wrote The Birth of Tragedy, which was a striking unique book but one that toasted his career as a philologist. Now, Nietzsche changes from professor to pundit; he wrote thirteen essays from 1873 to 1876 about German culture and politics, four of which became the Untimely Meditations. The title is apt, since Nietzsche throws his darts against his fellow Germans for their faulty practices of history, science, and philosophy.

Nietzsche writes boldly, often abrasing David Strauss and Georg Hegel with sharp wit, but presents many nuanced ideas about how we create history and think of “the truth”. The more I read Nietzsche, the more I wonder how anyone could think of him as some kind of wanna fascist. From the first page, Nietzsche refutes the “might makes right” idea his fellow Germans had; the Germans thought they had a greater culture than the French simply because they won the Franco-Prussian War. And I hate to disappoint fans of Jordan Peterson, but Nietzsche gets very “postmodern” in the second essay, where he even questions truth herself.

I do become frustrated when reading Nietzsche at times. The man praises Voltaire and Schopenhauer for writing clearly and simply, but Nietzsche himself writes as densely as Hegel. He litters the book with odd metaphors and does not explain exactly what is a Philistine, even though he attacks almost everyone with the label. He does not make his thesis obvious the way a “good” essayist does, but rather builds up to it over time, as if he wrote music or drama. I think this style of writing is amazing but it adds to my frustration at times. You cannot write like Nietzsche if you need to pay the bills. Nietzsche had a pension. I do not.   

The World of the Future
We see the Last Man for the first time, where Nietzsche shows how horrible Strauss’ “world of the future” and Hegel’s “World Spirit realized” would be. Humankind would become mediocre in old age and comfort; everyone would cultivate the life of a bourgeois gentleman; humans would become so weak and loathe life so much they would make the species extinct. In this way would the Last Judgment and “perfection” of the humankind come to pass [1]. Nietzsche ridicules Strauss’ vision with a parody of domestic life; newspapers litter the study desk, wives and children whine in the corner, and Rohl plays music for the home [2]. Nietzsche devoted his life to helping us avoid that doomsday prophecy. I honestly think we should heed his warning.     

From what I see, Strauss tries to have his cake and eat it too. He rejects Christian doctrines of Heaven and miracles for a historical account of the Bible, adopts a naturalistic worldview, but insists on Christian morals. You can see the same hypocrisy among many thinkers, in the 19th century and today, Christian and atheist alike. “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” Strauss insists, but Nietzsche cites the theory of evolution to call the hypocrite to question [5]. Nietzsche seems to show some Social Darwinist strains, but he is largely right, simply stating the facts. I have an iPhone 10 because we did not treat people the way we wanted to have been treated.    

I notice a small detail but an important one. Strauss “likens the world to a machine, with its wheels, stapers, hammers, and ‘soothing oil’” without irony [3]. This strained metaphor instantly evokes Blake’s dark Satanic mills: “I suppose the world is called a mill, because it is turned about on the wheels of time, and grinds and crushes those that most admire it.” [4] Strauss describes samsara, in essence, and he wants to turn the wheel! The unthinking Strauss wants people to grind out their lives in a dull materialistic existence. I infer Nietzsche calls Strauss a Philistine for this reason, that Strauss has no deep interest in the truth or culture but twists them to promote his “world of the future”. At least Strauss should have had a vision noble, not base.

As for Hegel, you have good reason to ridicule him. He seems to have fancied the Prussian state as the highest reality humans have achieved in history. His myth looks bright on the surface but is really a negative totalitarian ideology. Who dares threaten the World Spirit from achieving her goal? The person who wants humankind to gain knowledge of everything and become perfect is a perverse person. If Hegel’s dream comes to pass, our adventure ends; we have exhausted all our potential; we can only become extinct. Nietzsche predicted the Europeans of his day would not reach absolute knowledge nor realize heaven on earth, but would fall into terrible darkness, which is what happened in the 20th century [6].   

Modern Education
Nietzsche’s critique of university education is relevant today.  He reminds me of Marx, who famously cried how every human relation in the modern world was reduced to callous cash payment. We still raise our children to “become something”. We say “doctor or lawyer” while the German two hundred years ago said “good citizen, professor, or statesman”. We cram a child with so much dry knowledge he ages before his time, becoming weary and cynical before he could ever explore the world for himself [7]. We educate a university student to specialize in one field so she can fill the right cubicle after she graduates. “Siloing” is as old as dirt.

Modern education is, in essence, propaganda. A child must “become something” so he can be useful for the state, and to that end we fill his head with “facts” that defend the state, military, and economy. You can even see in real time how today’s bosses and professors become old Prussians during an interview. If you want to be a lawyer, they expect you to have been studying law while in the womb, to strive your whole life to obtain one lowly stupid job, and do nothing else. You must always be “politically correct”; by that I do not mean being decent to racial minorities but never being eccentric or dangerous, in other words “appropriate”.   

Nietzsche presents his own unique plan on how to educate a person, to cultivate her into a “solar system” of sorts. Indeed he wants to train her in a wide and deep range of knowledge like a Renaissance Man, but direct it towards a genius, not to “becoming something”. Part of educating a person means discovering the “paraphysical laws” of her solar system. In other words, learning the full depths of a person [8]. As cool as Nietzsche’s plan sounds, you clearly cannot devote so much time for every person. Schoolteachers share my lament; they wish they could nurture every child in the classroom, attend to every need, but their crushing duties prevent them.   

Pitfalls of History
I most enjoyed reading the second essay, where Nietzsche talks about studying history and the nature of truth herself. Probably it is because Nietzsche laxes his polemic against a Germany that no longer exists to delve deeper in philosophy. He starts the second essay with its most striking idea, that it is important for humans to forget. History repeats herself; the more things change the more things stay the same, but if you know that you will never do anything. Yet people repeat history anyway, because we let our passions blind us, “through love and the shadow of love’s illusions”. But he who destroys illusions in himself and others is punished by the ultimate tyrant, Nature [9]. See Donatian Sade for more details.   

We humans did not have a history during most of our time on Earth. We lived “ahistorically”, much like in Nietzsche’s metaphor of the beast; he is a creature blind to the world but assured in himself and confident, precisely because Nature turns in a circle and he forgets each time the circle completes. It seems like we cannot make up our minds if beasts are to be pitied or envied [10]. But when we built civilizations, we slowly got this idea called progress, and created history once we drew time as a line not of a circle. Regardless, we live in the imperfect tense.

Nietzsche describes three ways we study history: monumental, critical, and antiquarian. We practice monumental history by creating fables of grand heroes fulfilling a great destiny. American history in children’s books is a fine example. When we write history this way, we can unite a country’s people to achieve a high goal in politics or culture, but we must lie by omission. We must smooth out inconsistencies in history [11]. We practice critical history by finding fault in a story, like what Howard Zinn does in A People’s History of the United States, something modern scholars today call “deconstruction”. But we can only destroy with critique, and if we don’t create new values to replace the old ones, we only sketch the bars of our prison.

Pedants practice antiquarian history, which we most often abuse by collecting so many “facts” without sorting them in a meaningful way. The modern scholar is overwhelmed with so much trivial knowledge he remains pinned to his armchair. Nietzsche describes the scholar of his time as this sort; he dallies with the different arts of the present and the different artifacts of the past. He forms a shallow opinion in line with the state, then the press distributes his wisdom to people who are not scholars as “facts” [12]. And Nietzsche loathes journalists for butchering language, but I do not have the space to show how journalists butcher language today.

I think Nietzsche makes his boldest claims about truth. Humans do not have beliefs because of what is true and false. Humans have beliefs because of what values they hold. And those values come from the primitive passions in the human heart. You cannot judge anything, let alone history, and claim to be objective, yet we must make judgments to decide how to act best [13]. I interpret this to mean we are caught in a catch 22. We even make the effort the gain more knowledge because we value the act of pursuing knowledge as a good thing.

Nietzsche insists we do three things, a “threefold must”, to solve the riddle. We must recognize modern consciousness itself as a part of history; we must examine science itself through the scientific method; and we must solve the problem of history [14]. Nietzsche, for his part, has his own way of viewing history. Rather than seeing history as a line of progress, he sees history as a mountain range, with peaks marked by people of great genius and achievement. The irony, it is a rather “ahistorical” view of history

The Aim of Culture
I find the third essay easier to discuss and summarize because Nietzsche has thoroughly depicted his world by the time you reach this point. I care little for the fourth essay where Nietzsche waxes lyrical over Wagner and, once more, pines on the arrogant man to revive Greek tragedy and unite the German people to create a higher culture. Wagner does neither, and a heartbroken Nietzsche attacks Wagner in disgust in his later work.

Nietzsche goes into greater detail attacking the scholar of his time, and contrasts that typical man with Schopenhauer, what you could call a “true philosopher” or a “man of genius”. The banker rules the modern world, and likewise the aim of modern life is to make money. As a baker makes pastries and a pharmacist withholds medicine from sick people, a professor in university guards a society’s culture as a gatekeeper to make a living. What we call “intellectuals” decide what values a society accepts and what values it does not.

A genius, however, must go against the grain to pursue his muse. He must, in a way, reject the culture of his fellows, and he must go against the history his fellows create. Nietzsche uses the metaphor of a fish swimming upstream. Humans in large groups become a kind of golem with a mind of its own, with a collective will so strong no one can stop it. You can reject the golem’s will, but it comes with many dangers. Nietzsche lists three: you may become so lonely you lose touch with reality, you may fall to despair knowing the truth, and you may harden your heart in jaded hatred, turning from an independent thinker to a stifled dogmatist [15]. No matter what, a genius will always be untimely and problematic.

Nietzsche finally arrives to his central thesis. We should not seek to merely preserve ourselves as animals do according to Darwin, and neither should we “become something” like the state wants. Rather, we should cultivate a great culture that lets genius flourish [16]. He does not only mean genius as a person of tremendous creative power but the whole culture should itself have a kind of genius. But Nietzsche is inconstant. If we achieve a culture that nurtures genius and a genius goes against her culture, then what happens?   

  1. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Untimely Meditations. Translated by Anthony Ludovici and Adrian Collins, Pantianos Classics, 1909. Pg. 86
  2. The Untimely Meditations. Pg. 39
  3. The Untimely Meditations. Pg. 45
  4. Hermannus, Hugo. Pia Desideria. 1624. Pg. 29
  5. The Untimely Meditations. Pg. 26
  6. The Untimely Meditations. Pg. 83
  7. The Untimely Meditations. Pg. 119
  8. The Untimely Meditations. Pgs. 99 – 101
  9. The Untimely Meditations. Pg. 76
  10. The Untimely Meditations. Pg. 51
  11. The Untimely Meditations. Pgs. 58-59
  12. The Untimely Meditations. Pgs. 62-64
  13. The Untimely Meditations. Pgs. 71-73
  14. The Untimely Meditations. Pg. 81
  15. The Untimely Meditations. Pg. 103
  16. The Untimely Meditations. Pg. 123
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