Interview by Richard Marshall.
‘Hes especially impressed by the Epicurean emphasis on chance and by the attempt of the Epicurean teaching to free us from the fear of death and the focus on death: all of this helps to create the free human being and liberate our minds from fear, from the reactivity of desire, and from superstition.‘
‘This appreciation of Nietzsche as something of an Epicurean, albeit of a very selective kind, works against Heideggers reading of Nietzsche in a number of ways. I find his reading both bombastic and perverse, and it shows a flagrant disregard for Nietzsches published texts. He focuses almost exclusively on the late Nietzsche, relying heavily on the unpublished notes, and construes Nietzsche as the philosopher of (will to) power and who is said to be, the last metaphysician of the West (this is what I mean by the bombast).‘
‘Nietzsche says in the text that he wants to communicate to the reader the joy of this total disillusionment of the world and of being liberated from the affects, but, and as Michael Ure of Monash University has pointed out, its a curiously passionless joy that we are being invited to be elevated by. We can say this because theres no room anymore in this world-view for the passions or affects, they have been purified, and all we are left with is freedom of the mind there is certainly no freedom of action for Nietzsche at this point in his thinking: we are surrounded by a wall of fate, he writes, and can only dream ourselves free. ‘
‘For Nietzsche the idea of the human being is a bloodless fiction and society is a general concept. As Michel Foucault puts it in his reflections on the passion of knowledge, the critical task is to break with accustomed habits of knowing and perceiving, so that one has the chance to become something different than what ones history has conditioned one to be, to think and perceive differently. For Foucault this gives us, in fact, a definition of philosophical activity, which consists in the critical work that thought brings to bear on itself.‘
‘In short, his major claim is that we simply lack knowledge in the whole field of morality and yet we behave as if we were all perfectly competent interpreters of ourselves and of others. It is this moral realism that Nietzsche wants to expose as a fraud and to attack most of all. Its all part of him being a modern master of suspicion (along with Freud), as the French thinker Paul Ricoeur once put it.‘
‘I have to admit that Nietzsches so-called teachings and grand concepts (the will to power) dont particularly appeal to me or even interest me that much. I am far more interested in Nietzsches micro-analyses of human existence and of human psychology: he really saw himself as part of the tradition of French moralists and loved writers such as Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, and Stendhal. I think you see Nietzsche at his best when you approach him in these terms.‘
Keith Ansell-Pearson draws inspiration from Foucault’s concise conception of the problem of philosophy: how can the world be the object of knowledge and at the same time the place of the subject’s test? Here he discusses Nietzsche’s middle period, the three texts Human All Too Human, Dawn and The Gay Science, the influence of Epicurean enlightenment, Epicurean delight and Dionysian joy, Nietzsche’s search for philosophy, Karl Jaspers, Nietzschean positivism, Dawn as his answer to positivism, morality, living beyond fear, his serene atheism, how the middle period ideas relate to the late period, and Nietzsche’s break from the ‘bad air’ of German philosophy.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Keith Ansell-Pearson: I can give two responses to this question.
As a young boy I was gripped by what are best called cosmological questions and that obviously lend themselves to philosophical questioning: how did the universe come into being? Why is there something rather than nothing? With my family, especially guided by my elder brother, we used to discuss these questions frequently and just be amazed at the universe (amazed at the fact that it is), so on this front I guess I was conforming to Aristotles conception that philosophy begins in wonder. I have to stress, though, that I was from my earliest beginnings an atheist it felt like a strong instinct – and I felt at ease with a completely non-anthropocentric conception of the universe. I never felt the need for consoling thoughts such as you find in the traditional consolations of theology, metaphysics, institutional religion, or even some philosophy. The figure of Christ and the religion of Christianity never had any appeal for me. In my teenage years a thinker like Nietzsche was obviously a natural attraction, and in my later life I have developed a love of ancient irreligious thinkers such as Epicurus and Lucretius: the universe was not made for us and doesnt care about us!
Also from a very young age I was aware of death and the thought of it, which I would have every day, used to terrify me. I couldnt get my head around it and was often paralyzed at the sheer ineluctable and inexorable brute facticity of it. It was a fear of being alive for a mere 70 years, and then facing extinction for the rest of time. I think this awareness of death ultimately spearheaded me into becoming a philosopher; so, on this front I conformed to Schopenhauers idea that without death there would in fact be no philosophical speculation on the part of human beings. As he says, quite beautifully, philosophy begins in a minor chord and I think hes right. Having said this and acknowledged the melancholy, I ultimately believe philosophy is a joyful wisdom. The trick is how to attain cheerfulness, serenity, and peace of mind in life, to feel at home in a godless universe.
3:AM: Youre currently focused on Nietzsches middle period. So was Nietzsche a philosopher who changes his mind, and what is characteristic about this period that marks it off from his late works and those of his young self? What works are we talking about?
KAP: Well, some commentators would contest the idea there is such as thing as Nietzsches middle period, and the sub-title of my new book is meant to be less contentious: the middle writings. Still, I am a commentator who subscribes to the view that there is something distinctive about Nietzsches projects in his middle writings, and I seek to present to the reader a Nietzsche they may not be very familiar with. This is a Nietzsche who is committed to continuing an Enlightenment project, who seeks to combat fanaticism (in philosophy, in morality, and in religion), who espouses the need for a philosophy of modesty and the use of modest words when it comes to describing ourselves, and a Nietzsche who recommends, contra the demand for revolution, a program of slow cures and small doses.
We are talking here of the texts Human, all too Human (actually made up of three books in two volumes, published 1878-80), Dawn (1881), and the one most people may be familiar with, The Gay Science (1882). I seek to illuminate aspects of all three works, and my personal favorite is Dawn, which I think might well be Nietzsches best book and the one where hes at his most serene, displaying a wonderful intellectual sobriety and an attractive commitment to philosophical expermentalism. But to answer your specific question: in my view Nietzsche does change his mind and puts into play many different conceptions of philosophy in his writings. My focus is on the conceptions of philosophy we encounter in these neglected middle writings Dawn is the most neglected text in Nietzsches corpus, for example, and I pay special attention to the texts final book, book five, which is remarkable and yet has hardly been analyzed in the literature, if at all. It has so many thought-provoking and thought-arresting aphorisms in it. The main difference from the early Nietzsche is that he has now broken firmly with Wagner and Schopenhauer and also his philosophical heroes have changed: they are no longer his beloved pre-Socratics but philosophers like Epicurus and the Stoic Epictetus. These are figures in whom, Nietzsche says, in an arresting and, I think, profound formulation, wisdom assumes bodily form. Everyone that reads Nietzsche knows best the late, polemical Nietzsche texts such as Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morality, and The Anti-Christ, and this Nietzsche can be extreme at times, difficult to digest or stomach, and a philosopher who indulges in some dangerous political fantasies (fantasies of breeding higher human types, for example, whilst condemning the mass of humankind to a beggarly existence). I find him at his most attractive philosophically, as well as ethically and politically – in the middle writings where, as I say, he weds himself to carrying on the tasks and projects of both ancient and modern enlightenments: these are tasks of demystification, of creating the free human being (a being that has a mind free of fear, dread, superstition, and reactive modes of being), and of creating new ways of thinking and feeling. As he says in Dawn, we human beings are experiments and the task is to want to be such.
3:AM: What do you mean by saying that an Epicurean enlightenment is important to these middle period writings and why does this help contest Heideggers portrayal of Nietzsche as the technological thinker of our age? Why does he criticise Epicurus in his later writings given that it looks like he was a crucial figure for him during this middle time?
KAP: OK, several big questions for me to deal with here! As I have just casually mentioned, in his middle writings Nietzsche has an interest in Epicurean teaching, and here its not the dubious atomism hes interested in, but the philosophical way of life the Epicureans cultivated, namely, the garden philosophy. Nietzsche sees this as a model to be adopted by the free spirits of his time, those that will live on the margins of society and seek to cultivate these new ways of thinking and feeling. Hes especially impressed by the Epicurean emphasis on chance and by the attempt of the Epicurean teaching to free us from the fear of death and the focus on death: all of this helps to create the free human being and liberate our minds from fear, from the reactivity of desire, and from superstition.
In The Wanderer and his Shadow Nietzsche describes Epicurus as the soul-soother of later antiquity who had the wonderful insight that to quieten our being it is not necessary to have resolved the ultimate and outermost theoretical questions. To those who are tormented by the fear of the gods, one points out that if the gods exist they do not concern themselves with us and that it is unnecessary to engage in fruitless disputation over the ultimate question as to whether they exist or not. Furthermore, in response to the consideration of a hypothesis, half belonging to physics and half to ethics, and that may cast gloom over our spirits, it is wise to refrain from refuting the hypothesis and instead offer a rival hypothesis, even a multiplicity of hypotheses. To someone who wishes to offer consolation for example, to the unfortunate, to ill-doers, to hypochondriacs, and so on one can call to mind two pacifying formulae of Epicurus that are capable of being applied to many questions: firstly, if that is how things are they do not concern us; secondly, things may be thus but they may also be otherwise. For an Epicurean sage the world is the product of chance, rather than of divine intervention; coming to this understanding brings with it pleasure and peace of mind, freeing the sage from an unreasonable fear of the gods, and making it possible to consider each moment as an unexpected miracle and to greet each moment of existence with immense gratitude. Nietzsche himself constantly appeals to chance in and the contingency of existence in Dawn, and he does so as a way of freeing the mind from conceptions of existence that make us feel anxious. He calls chance the benevolent inspirer in the world and in human existence.
Epicureans attempt to lead a modest existence, and this greatly appeals to Nietzsche at this time; as he says, a few few figs, some small cheese, and two or three friends: this was luxuriance for Epicurus. Epicureans also have a modest conception of human life: theres no cosmic exceptionalism and they place the emphasis on refined heroism in which you walk quietly in and out of life. I have to say that I personally find this Epicurean emphasis on leading a modest existence, and on having a modest conception of the human being, highly laudable. It deflates human importance and significance, and its a conception of life I am personally wedded to.
This appreciation of Nietzsche as something of an Epicurean, albeit of a very selective kind, works against Heideggers reading of Nietzsche in a number of ways. I find his reading both bombastic and perverse, and it shows a flagrant disregard for Nietzsches published texts. He focuses almost exclusively on the late Nietzsche, relying heavily on the unpublished notes, and construes Nietzsche as the philosopher of (will to) power and who is said to be, the last metaphysician of the West (this is what I mean by the bombast). What I love about the middle Nietzsche is that there is no metaphysics at work, but a respect for science; and there is certainly no master concept in his thinking, such as the will to power. On the contrary, in Dawn, for example, he especially warns against having in your philosophy a master concept (it simplifies too much). Heideggers reading has had an enormous influence on the so-called continental reception of Nietzsche; in my view it has led to sterility and there is a real need to think outside its terms and contest its claims that Nietzsches commitment to the concept of the will to power is the expression of the technological domination of the planet. The middle Nietzsche has only the psychological concept of the feeling of power and its used critically; moreover, this middle Nietzsche is all about cultivating a care of the self and a care of the world, so it has both and an existential dimension and the potential for an ecological one. I only touch on this latter aspect in my book and regrettably dont explore it.
As to why Nietzsche alters his appreciation of Epicurus in some fundamental respects in his late writings, this is a complex issue and one I dont fully address in the book. I wanted to keep the focus strictly on the middle writings. I now plan to research a new book, though, and that will address this question. Basically, Nietzsche accuses Epicurus of being a (typical) decadent, and he also pits Dionysian joy over Epicurean delight. This latter contrast deeply intrigues me. I think for Nietzsche Epicurean delight is attained by removing oneself from the world (retreating into the garden) and leading a lifestyle of refined asceticism, and this involves removing oneself from pain and from what he sees as the necessarily tragic dimension of a human existence; by contrast, Dionysian joy emerges from undergoing the trials and tribulations of a full life and so is based on a recognition of the tragic conditions of life. The charge of decadence is in my view possibly misplaced and to deal with it properly I need to carry out research I havent fully executed yet. All I can say here is to note that decadence is a slippery notion in the late Nietzsche, often loosely defined with virtually every thinker in the history of philosophy said by Nietzsche to be a decadent, including himself! In the case of Epicurus, Nietzsche sees a philosopher retreating from the world; the teaching is held to be decadent insofar as it fails to recognize that its only by experiencing great pain in life that whole new galaxies of joy can come into existence: this is Nietzsches well known emphasis on the importance in life of self-conquest and self-overcoming. The charge of decadence against Epicurus here seems to imply that at the heart of the Epicurean philosophy, as a way of life, is an intellectual and moral inertia. I now plan to work intensively on this criticism of Epicurus we find in the late Nietzsche, and it will form the basis of my next book.
3:AM: What do you mean when you say that Nietzsche was searching for philosophy? Are you agreeing with Karl Jaspers when he said that his project was about the elevation of human existence?
KAP: Well, Nietzsche breaks with his former self circa 1878, with the publication of Human, all too Human, with what he saw himself as his romanticism and his idealism, and so necessarily he has to embark upon the search for a new intellectual identity, including his identity as a philosopher. Nietzsche doesnt mean idealism in a philosophically technical sense, but rather in the sense of displaying an ignorance of the body, of physiology, of psychology, and so on. With the publication of Human, all too Human Nietzsche thought he had, in fact, taken repossession of himself, liberating himself from what in his nature did not truly belong to him, such as this idealism. In Ecce Homo Nietzsche writes that his break with his former self, as well as with his former loyalties and commitments, was part of a greater need on his part to reflect on himself. When set against his task in life including carrying out the philosophy of the revaluation of values his whole existence as a trained and practising philologist appeared as quite useless and arbitrary. As he says, realities were completely lacking in his knowledge and the idealities he had committed himself to were worth damn all. He felt the need then to pursue real knowledge, consisting in physiology, medicine, and natural science.
By searching I mean several things and wish to leave some meanings reserved for the reader to work out for himself or herself. I deliberately refrain in the book from giving a single and simple definition of the books title. Having said this, I am struck by the number of conceptions of philosophy Nietzsches puts into operation in his middle writings, and whilst one of these is well known amongst his readers and commentators, namely, the conception of historical philosophizing, some are not, and I seek to highlight and illuminate them. One example I can give is his conception inspired by the example of Epicurus of heroic-idyllic philosophizing, which has passed by the attention of most commentators. There are subtle but significant shifts in Nietzsches thinking as his middle writings evolve and take shape, and in this respect he is searching for philosophy: what are its tasks? What is its role and function in the modern, godless world? What kind of passion of knowledge motivates or drives it?, and so on.
I admire Jaspers book on Nietzsche very much, it has an incisive appreciation of Nietzsche as a philosopher; for me Nietzsche is something of a sublime thinker, though again its a modest conception of the sublime he has in his middle writings (hes suspicious of an otherworldly or transcendent sublime). By sublime here I mean a concern with the elevation of the human mind and the expansion of our mental powers of comprehension. I think Nietzsche is right when he says in his autobiography, Ecce Homo that the reader can find in his writings real ecstasies of learning. I can say this is true of my own experience of reading Nietzsche and also true of reading the philosophy books I most admire and that I have learned the most from.
3:AM: What did Nietzsche think about sobriety and tempering excess, and how did he treat fanaticism, in Human, All Too Human? Is this the most positivist, hard-nosed and scientific Nietzsche we find anywhere, and one where if there is joy its curiously passionless?
KAP: Human, all too Human is a curious text in many ways, a transitional work for Nietzsche as he says farewell to the metaphysical-artistic views of his first incarnation (The Birth of Tragedy) and embarks on a new intellectual journey for himself. The first volume of HAH (1878) is indeed Nietzsche at his most positivist and let me say that I have time for some degree and dosage of positivism in philosophy, it helps to demystify things and teaches a respect for science but in subsequent volumes of the project, notably The Wanderer and His Shadow (1879-80), he finesses the project a great deal and is more sanguine about the prospect of achieving a new synthesis of physics (or the study of nature) and ethics. Basically, in the first volume of HAH Nietzsche seems to want to completely disillusion the world, to demystify and dispel to a radical extent, so the world as he now sees it is devoid of philosophical consolation, as well as of free will and of creative agency, and we confront a cold, mechanical world that works in Laplacean terms like pre-determined clockwork mechanism: everything is calculable and predictable. Nietzsche says in the text that he wants to communicate to the reader the joy of this total disillusionment of the world and of being liberated from the affects, but, and as Michael Ure of Monash University has pointed out, its a curiously passionless joy that we are being invited to be elevated by. We can say this because theres no room anymore in this world-view for the passions or affects, they have been purified, and all we are left with is freedom of the mind there is certainly no freedom of action for Nietzsche at this point in his thinking: we are surrounded by a wall of fate, he writes, and can only dream ourselves free.
What I do like about HAH, though, is its project of tempering a human mind that is prone to mental and emotional excess, and here he puts into play various Epicurean techniques and procedures so as to cool down the human mind (e.g. if the gods exist they do not care about us, so lets not waste time or energy thinking about them and worrying about their alleged designs or intentions). Nietzsche prided himself on not being a fanatic and in the book I show that Dawn in particular is a work that aims to combat and undermine fanaticism, be it in philosophy itself, or more pertinently in morality and religion. Nietzsche is against three ideas in particular: that there are ultimate and definitive truths; that there is a single moral-making morality; and that there is a true self to which you need to abandon yourself to. He thinks these ideas are often fanatically adhered to and what he wants is a mode of thinking open to complexity and ambiguity. This anti-fanatical Nietzsche is little known to readers of his writings and I am keen to bring it to the fore as a key component in his thinking. Focusing on the problem of fanaticism in Nietzsche can do two things: first, it can illuminate the nature of his attack on morality and its immodest claims; and, second, it can shed light on the specific mode of philosophizing he is keen to unfold and stage in his middle writings. Nietzsche has a definite project in these texts that centres on cooling down a human mind prone to neurosis, and he appeals to various philosophical sources to mount a programme of mental reform. I have already mentioned the importance to him of the ancient likes of Epicurus and Epictetus, but there are also early modern and modern figures who are equally important to him, such as Montaigne and Voltaire. It is often said that Nietzsche is a thinker with a revolutionary agenda. It is important to appreciate, however, that he is decidedly anti-revolution, which he associates with the cultivation of fanaticism. What he prizes is what he finds in Voltaire: the highest freedom of spirit with an absolutely unrevolutionary disposition.
3:AM: Looking at Dawn you discuss Nietzsche writing about the sacrifice humanity makes for knowledge, and how this sacrifice is one of the sublimities of philosophy. Can you sketch for us what Nietzsche is saying here and how such a passion must be placed within the economy of life as a whole so as to avoid life becoming boring? Is this Nietzsche answering the positivism and passionless joy of Human All Too Human with a nuanced alternative eudaemonistic philosophy based in prehistoric fear rather than love?
KAP: Yes, you are exactly right in your last point. In Dawn Nietzsche is worried about our championing of truth over all other virtues and practices, and in particular he worries that in becoming so devoted to its cause we will make ourselves boring and tasteless in the process. I think myself its a healthy concern to have, and here Nietzsche anticipates a question he will dramatize for his readers in the next book, The Gay Science, when he asks: to what extent can truth endure incorporation? That is the task! That is the new experiment! Nietzsches commitment to truth should never be doubted, but at the same time one has to grasp that his overriding concern is with the human economy of life as a whole. He sees both the will to truth and the will to untruth at any price as intellectually immature pursuits. He also wants us to be practice what he calls the passion of knowledge in the spirit of a genuinely open-ended, experimental inquiry or set of inquiries. Often we do not know what is motivating us in our pursuit of knowledge or exactly where it will lead us. Nietzsche thinks we nevertheless need to affirm this practice as part of the passion that is driving us, and in this sense he thinks we have to be open to the idea of making sacrifices of ourselves and of our lives. Certainly for Nietzsche the great thinkers of history have all made sacrifices of their lives for knowledge and he likes to think that thinkers do this in the hope perhaps its a new consolation that a healthier and more mature humanity will emerge as result in the future.
In 1880 Nietzsche writes an interesting note to himself on the passions when he observes that without the passions the world is reduced to being simply quantity and line and law and nonsense, presenting us with the most repulsive and presumptuous paradox. And by the time of Dawn the pursuit of knowledge has become a passion for him, if not the overriding one. Nietzsche places the passion of knowledge in the service of a philosophical project that aims at disabusing humanity of its consoling fictions e.g. concerning the uniqueness of its origins and destiny – and encouraging it to pursue new truths and a new kind of philosophical wisdom. Through new and refined practices of observation and self-observation, we as human beings largely unknown to ourselves can become our own experiments. We are to become strangers to our ordinary and habitual selves, viewing ourselves afresh as experiments of living and feeling and of knowledge. For Nietzsche the idea of the human being is a bloodless fiction and society is a general concept. As Michel Foucault puts it in his reflections on the passion of knowledge, the critical task is to break with accustomed habits of knowing and perceiving, so that one has the chance to become something different than what ones history has conditioned one to be, to think and perceive differently. For Foucault this gives us, in fact, a definition of philosophical activity, which consists in the critical work that thought brings to bear on itself. Instead, of legitimating what is already known the task is to think differently, and this is an essential part of philosophical activity conceived as an asksis. Foucault, I might add, is one of the few major contemporary thinkers to have been inspired by the middle writings and to appropriate their tasks.
3:AM: Why did Nietzsche think morality needed to be more modest? Was this part of his seeking to return philosophy to its ancient refined heroism of seeking therapy for the sicknesses of the soul only in modern conditions of social control and discipline?
KAP: Nietzsche thinks most of the claims we make as moral agents and on behalf of morality are immodest and we would be wise to come up with more modest words to describe ourselves. He holds to this view for various reasons. First, morality makes great claims concerning our acting out of a regard for others, but Nietzsche thinks egoistic and altruistic behavior are always entangled with one another. Second, and following from this, we also have to be healthily suspicious of the claims agents make about themselves and their so-called altruistic deeds and compassionate acts: modern psychology tells us this and Nietzsche has contributed to it in immeasurable ways. Third, Nietzsche thinks we dont adequately understand the human self and the complex character of its various drives. Nietzsche holds to the view that the self is a battleground of different drives, and that the intellect is not the only important facet of being a subject. In short, his major claim is that we simply lack knowledge in the whole field of morality and yet we behave as if we were all perfectly competent interpreters of ourselves and of others. It is this moral realism that Nietzsche wants to expose as a fraud and to attack most of all. Its all part of him being a modern master of suspicion (along with Freud), as the French thinker Paul Ricoeur once put it.
Much has been made of Nietzsches skeptical remarks with regard to the self, which seem to call our understanding of subject unity or even the possibility of such unity and associated agency into question, and which may ultimately commit Nietzsche to an incoherent position. However, while Nietzsche makes skeptical remarks about the unity of the self in Dawn, he also seems to make affirmative remarks concerning the possibility of, and indeed the need for, self-cultivation. I think Nietzsche wants to return ethics to its ancient roots in the Hellenistic schools: the chief task is to cultivate the self and practice a self-love first and foremost; only in this way can you adequately relate to others. Nietzsche is in favor of carrying out this deep ethical work on the self and thinks that those who seek to find themselves in others are simply escaping from the vital need to care for the self and cultivate a self for oneself. Whats interesting about Nietzsche as an ethicist is that he has this concern and my argument in the book is that it is at its most prominent and exemplary in his neglected middle writings. I show in particular that he is responding to what he sees as the dangers of the modern morality of sympathy and the cult of the sympathetic affects within commercial society (an early term for capitalism): the chief danger for Nietzsche is that the cult of these affects will result in a tyrannical encroachment and work against the need to cultivate oneself. Here he says and I find it a beautiful formulation that the chief task is to fashion a self that others can behold with pleasure, and one does this by cultivating a peaceful, self-enclosed garden with gates of hospitality. Nietzsche does think we have duties to others and that our relations with others are important; at the same time, though, he wants an ethics of self-reliance and mature independent individuals.
3:AM: His joy and cheerfulness are centre stage in this last middle period text Gay Science and you show that its a cheerfulness that stems from his experiences of knowledge. Can you say something about this and what is meant by thinking of knowledge as a world of dangers and victories in which heroic feelings … find places to dance and play.
KAP: In a way this connects to things I was saying earlier about Nietzsches conception of there being a passion of knowledge. He wants us to live beyond fear and anxiety and so the cheerfulness is part of this operation: we are to exist as fearless lovers of knowledge. This means that for him the event of the death of God is to be regarded in serene or cheerful terms: we are now liberated from a transcendent (even totalitarian) authority and are free to think and live for ourselves, which is to be dramatically and radically free. As Nietzsche says in The Gay Science, and in writing about the meaning of his cheerfulness, now humanity has before it vast open seas and never before in its history has it had the opportunity of navigating such open seas. He is well aware that navigating these new seas brings with it all kinds of hazards, but at the same time he thinks a mature humanity is one that has the intellectual and moral resources to weather the storms. Nietzsche really has this Dionysian-inspired faith in the rejuvenating powers of life and the ability of human beings to perpetually re-invent the conditions of their existence. For him there is a kind of heroism at work here: heroism because we are taking risks and embracing risk as an essential aspect of the adventure of existence, and also because in living such a style of existence we live as conquerors of all kinds of obstacles and difficulties that we surely encounter along the way. In my book I note that Nietzsche has a preference for specific types of cheerful thinkers – examples in his writings include Socrates, Montaigne, and Emerson but at the same time he is insistent that our cheerfulness cannot be of a superficial kind. He seems to want two things from it: first, an appreciation of the deep seriousness of existence whilst at the same time not becoming glum or melancholic as a result; and, second, to have the ability to mock oneself in a self-humorous fashion.
For me it is Gilles Deleuze who has written most instructively about Nietzsches atheism as a serene atheism. It means that for such a philosophy the death of God is not so much a problem as a condition that one needs to acquire before other more interesting problems emerge. There is an intimate connection here with the kind of serenity that characterizes Nietzsches explication of the meaning of his cheerfulness at the start of book five of The Gay Science (from 1887). Nietzsche suggests that although there is breakdown, ruin, and cataclysm to be expected from the event of the death of the Christian god, he has no desire to be a teacher of gloom concerning this event; rather, there is only a new kind of light, happiness, relief, exhilaration, encouragement, dawn. One meaning of Nietzsches cheerfulness and there is more than one is to have an instinctive fearlessness with regard to the questions and difficulties that life throws up for us, and it is such a fearless attitude that informs and guides his atheistic commitment. As a thinker one wants to search and to go in search of knowledge; one also wishes to do this in a manner that is calm, serene, and even gay (it has real merriment to it).
3:AM: So when we take these three texts together, how are we to understand Nietzsches views about what philosophy is about and should be doing, and in particular how should we read his later works in the light of these? Are these middle texts actually more representative of his mature thinking?
KAP: You raise here a good set of questions, and the answers to them have to be quite complex. My view is that Nietzsche reaches a genuine intellectual maturity with Dawn. In the book he radiates a tremendous sense of well being and, as the title discloses, he is full of expectation and anticipation with regards to the future and new dawns breaking. He has a genuine passion for knowledge and a keen sense of the complexity and ambiguity of things. Philosophy has multiple tasks to perform, not least ridding the world of stupidity and sadness, but perhaps its chief task for Nietzsche is to help cultivate mature individuals, individuals who can live without the previous consolations of philosophy (the metaphysically-inspired ones) and have a readiness to chart those new seas of existence that have now opened up before us. At the same time, we have to appreciate we are fully part of nature with no special significance and no special role to play in the cosmos. This, then, is a philosophy, like Spinozas, of strict immanence and it is no surprise that in 1881 Nietzsche discovered for himself that he had a precursor in Spinoza. (in his subsequent writings, though, he comes to express doubts over the wisdom of Spinozas austere teaching – as he sees it with its no-more laughing and no-more weeping aspects).
What is genuinely complex is the question of the relation between the middle and late Nietzsches. I dont myself have a ready-made answer to this question and yet it is an issue that deeply occupies me. I dont deal with it in the book, I shy away from it, and simply because I havent yet worked out my position. In fact, I dont know anybody who has. Its a real enigma to deal with when you study Nietzsche, which I have been doing now for almost forty years. I can say two things: first, the middle Nietzsche remains in large part very unknown to readers of his writings and to philosophical culture as a whole; second, there is the assumption in many peoples heads that because the late Nietzsche obviously comes after the middle one that it must be the final, the authentic, the consummate Nietzsche, but this in my view is a massive assumption to make. The late texts are specific texts; they work primarily as polemics (that often degenerate into rants!) Nietzsche himself said that the middle writings constituted the yes-saying part of his task, whilst the late writings constitute the no-saying part. The issue that needs reflecting upon, then, is the relation between the two parts of task and whether Nietzsches middle writings offer more of a philosophy of the future than do the late writings. For now I suspend judgment on this difficult question. Finally, let me stress that although my great passion and love is for the middle writings of the corpus I fully recognize that the late writings have extraordinary aspects to them and a joy all of their own. Ecce Homo, for example, and the last text, is a book of rare philosophical wit and sagacity.
3:AM: Its clear from your writings that you have a real love for Nietzsche, how do you explain this?
KAP: The attraction was immediate! I discovered Nietzsche as a teenager, before I went to University and outside of an academic context, and my interest in Nietzsche and devotion to his writings has never been merely academic. I saw a lot of myself in his writings and felt deep affinities with him: like him, I consider myself an atheist by intellectual predilection and by instinct, and like him I have never wrestled with so-called religious problems. There is also clear recognition of death in Nietzsche and yet, as he says, he wants us to focus our energies on life and not on death. I love the quality of the writing, which is extraordinary. I also find enthralling the range of Nietzsches intellectual coverage in his writings: in one aphorism he is dissecting some serious problem of existence, a moral or a religious topic, and in the next he is discussing some intimate matter of existence, such as the need for good sleep, how one feels at the different ages of life, or what makes a good marriage. I also admire his respect for science, and also the fact that his writings are never dry or boring. Nietzsche holds that the first philosophers on the planet, figures such as Heraclitus or Empedocles, were outsiders and abnormalities and they fashioned what he calls new possibilities of life. This is how I see Nietzsche: an outsider and a philosopher who offers these possibilities of life. He is truly an original and is a philosopher who shows, as do the thinkers he most admires, that it is possible as an irreligous person to live in a state of profound joy.
I think Nietzsche made a deliberate decision to break with the tradition of German philosophy, which he found sterile and boring. The art of thinking assumes specific forms in his work. He does not simply present his readers with disquisitions on philosophical topics but rather dramatizes them through a series of parables, thought experiments, imagined conversations, and the like. His aim is always to energize and enliven philosophical style through an admixture of aphoristic and poetic broadly speaking, literary forms. When Nietzsche discusses his favourite authors and books it is usually at the expense of German authors and German philosophy. He mentions some of his favourite reading, which includes the likes of Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, Fontenelle, and Chamfort. In Ecce Homo he says that the German spirit constitutes his bad air. He amplifies on this by saying that what the German spirit lacks is cleanliness in psychological matters; in this respect, Germany has never gone a through a seventeenth century of hard self-examination as the French did. Here he has in mind the integrity of authors such as Descartes and La Rochefoucauld. The problem with the Germans for Nietzsche is, in fact, that they have no psychologists. So, I wish to repeat, its really as a psychologist of the human, all too human and as a thinker who has the passion of knowledge that Nietzsche appeals to me and not the Nietzsche who is, putatively, the last metaphysician of the West.
3:AM: And finally for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books (other than your own) that you can recommend to take us further into your philosophical world?
KAP: My truly great passion is for works in the tradition of what I call the joyful wisdom where philosophy exists to help create the free human being and to defeat sadness (whether this sadness is created by priests or political tyrants). The books I want to recommend are admirable in this regard. Each one works against human narcissism and invites us to embrace a modest conception of ourselves and of human existence.
Alas, we only have fragments of the corpus of Epicurus, and in particular I recommend the letter to Menoeceus where Epicurus neatly lays out the function of philosophy and outlines the Epicurean way of life. As he famously says, one is never too old to take up philosophy if ones task in life is to become free and to free the mind of fear and superstition.
Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe
De Rerum Natura is an extraordinary book written in poetic verse and offering great insight into the character of Epicurean teaching. It is famous perhaps for its atomism but readers should look out for a new book coming out this year by Thomas Nail and with Edinburgh University Press that aims to show that Lucretius is more a thinker of radical flux and motion. He offers an inspiring new Lucretius and I am very excited about this book (Lucretius: An Ontology of Motion).
Montaigne, The Essays
I have only discovered Montaigne late in life, in my fifties, but what a joyous and liberating writer and thinker he is! Nietzsche adored him. I find him such an honest writer, uncannily modern, and a genuine psychologist. He has an enormous range and has the knack of illuminating everything he touches and brings his mind to. It perhaps goes without saying that I greatly profit from his essay To learn to philosophize is to learn how to die, but there is nothing morbid or depressing in Montaignes reflections on human existence. I also admire his dependence on the great classical thinkers, such as Plutarch, Seneca, and Lucretius.
This is the most neglected text in Nietzsches corpus but it is my personal favorite and may be my all-time favorite work of philosophy. Many of the aphorisms are beautifully crafted and all of them provide food for thought. Nietzsche too loved this book and it shows: the reader gets from it a sense of real well being on the part of the author. It is deeply challenging, path-breaking, and a highly enigmatic text. I can spend hours with it, mulling over the aphorisms that I dip into at any one time. I think I love this text so much because it eschews the need for a master concept and is truly a work of experimental philosophy. It also eschews the need for God, the gods, and religion. I also admire its respect for science. I have just completed with Rebecca Bamford a guide to Dawn and Wiley Blackwell will publish this at the end of this year or early 2019.
Nietzsche, The Gay Science
To a certain extent this text continues the path-breaking work of Dawn and aspects of it are well known, such as the famous parable about the madman declaring the death of God and the teachings of amor fati and the eternal recurrence of the same. It also contains a beautifully crafted aphorism on Epicurus (number 45). I have to admit that Nietzsches so-called teachings and grand concepts (the will to power) dont particularly appeal to me or even interest me that much. I am far more interested in Nietzsches micro-analyses of human existence and of human psychology: he really saw himself as part of the tradition of French moralists and loved writers such as Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, and Stendhal. I think you see Nietzsche at his best when you approach him in these terms. The one thing Nietzsche is not is a metaphysician in the tradition of modern German philosophy: he really thought this tradition was bereft of genuine psychology with all its powers of suspicious discernment and unsettling probing. Robert Pippin of the University of Chicago has sought to highlight this Nietzsche, and I think hes right to do so.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, February 24th, 2018.