(Review) Nietzsche, The Thinker.

William Mackintire Salter's book entitled “Nietzsche the Thinker” is a biographical work on the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He wrote the book in 1908, shortly after Nietzsche's death in 1900. The book is a comprehensive analysis of Nietzsche's philosophical ideas and his life. Salter explores Nietzsche's intellectual development, his major works, and his impact on modern philosophy. Salter also provides an insightful look into Nietzsche's personal life and his struggles with mental illness. Salter's writing…

Wilbur Marshall Urban’s Review[1]


Perhaps the most melancholy phase of the storm and stress through which the English-speaking peoples have been passing is the Nietzsche horror which seems to have taken possession of them body and soul. It was not so long ago that Mr. Gilbert Chesterton, with that finality which so easily besets him, told us that the ‘superman’ makes any discussion absurd into which he enters, and most of us were well pleased with this sign of robust English sense. We were told that art is the last refuge of the overman and, never having taken art seriously, we were content that he should roam there in a land of unreality where he could do no harm. Apparently, the superman did not have to wait long for his revenge; and if recently he has actually been making almost every discussion into which he enters absurd, it is not in just the way Mr. Chesterton supposed.

It is most fortunate, therefore, that, with this tendency to hysterical judgment, which has not spared even scholars and philosophers, we have Mr. Salter’s book on Nietzsche, The Thinker, in my mind destined to become the nearest approach to an authoritative work on the subject in the English language.

Needless to say, the superman is not absurd as presented by Mr. Salter. Neither is he a terrible figure. The author’s occasional articles on Nietzsche have prepared us not only for a scholarly but for a thoroughly sensible treatment. The book was written in substance before the present war, “with no thought of such a monstrous possibility,” and to the author it appears principally as the outcome of general European tendencies which Nietzsche opposed. In his calm way Mr. Salter tells us that: “As the word itself [superman] is formed most naturally, we often speak of superhuman excellencies and qualities, so the idea is entirely natural . . . nothing but the crystallization of the thought that man can develop beyond the present stage of his existence and hence should.” It seems to him in the main quite reasonable to say that Nietzsche “finally settled down to thinking of supermen simply as extraordinary specimens of men, who, however, if favored instead of being fought as they commonly are, might lead to a considerable modification of the human type.” This is typical of the entire book, and it is for this reason that I have quoted it.

Mr. Salter, like a reasonable man, tries honestly to understand Nietzsche rather than to refute him. Like a reasonable man again he assumes that there is method in his madness and that it is better to assume him to be sane, logical and systematic in a normal degree until the opposite has been proved. Nietzsche’s own wonderfully brilliant and epigramatic style has usually proved to be an irresistible temptation to his critics to try to treat him in the same fashion. His so-called megalomania and his occasional assumption of singularity have too often imposed upon them and led them to think of him as a portent to be exorcised rather than a phenomenon to be construed. Mr. Salter steadfastly resists both temptations. His own style is colorless enough to form a perfect medium; his essential reasonableness is proof against superstition.

So far as the general plan of the book is concerned, the selection and distribution of the ‘stuff,’ there is nothing especially noteworthy, although it is wholly scholarly and adequate. It follows the well-worn path of spiritual chronology. The generally recognized three periods of Nietzsche’s development are followed, and in each case the general ‘world-view’ is sketched and the fundamental changes in aesthetic, moral, social and political conceptions noted. Though disclaiming in any sense to write the story of Nietzsche’s life, the author gives us all that is necessary to understand his thinking. Fifty pages of notes at the end increase the value of the work for the scholar, and some of them contain valuable information and suggestions. The book is provided with a good index.

The part of the book for which the philosophical reader will doubtless be most grateful is the tracing of the epistemological and metaphysical views through the three periods. Is Nietzsche a philosopher at all in this sense? With Bethelot, Beyer and Vaihinger, Mr. Salter believes that he is.

Nietzsche was, of course, as Mr. Salter says, never a materialist. He was also never either a realist or an idealist in the ordinary sense of these terms. He even asserts that the questions of idealism and realism, in the epistemological sense, relate to a region where neither belief nor knowledge is necessary, a sort of nebulous swamp-land beyond the reach of investigation and reason, and pleads for our becoming good neighbors to the things that lie near. Realistic implications there are, even in this statement, idealistic implications in his entire estimate of common sense and science. But the view that he ultimately comes to in the third period, after the “Artisten-Metaphysik,” of the first, and the anti-metaphysical positivism of the second period, is, as Mr. Salter clearly sees, the result of viewing the whole problem of truth and reality from a new angle. There is nothing so banal as taking the ‘will to power’ as primarily an ethical standard. With Nietzsche it is primarily an interpretation of reality. It is scarcely less stupid to subsume the ‘will to power’ under the categories of materialism and spiritualism — the categories of a second rate, bourgeois, philosophy. These are things “we must learn not to say of reality,” as Nietzsche himself says. ‘Plump’ is truly the only word to describe the treatment Nietzsche commonly receives in his philosophical no less than narrowly ethical conceptions. Mr. Salter sees, as few others have, that the whole problem is viewed from a new angle — one involving nothing less in fact than the abandonment of the existential for the value point of view. How successfully he carried it out is of course another question.

“When Nietzsche was little more than a name to me,” the author confesses, “I had spoken of the idea of getting beyond good and evil as naturally landing one in a madhouse.” That which distinguishes Mr. Salter’s book beyond everything else is his present grasp of what I might call the ‘method in Nietzsche’s madness.’ His repentance has been to good purpose, for I know of no one else, unless it be Simmel, to whom he refers repeatedly in the highest terms, who has grasped it so completely.

He recognizes, in the first place, that the inmost psychology and driving force of Nietzsche’s ethical and political thinking is his innate reverence. His is a critique of all reverences, but if he despises, it is because he has not forgotten how to revere. He quotes as a characteristic saying of the second period, “No, there is no law, no obligation of this sort. We must become traitors, practice disloyalty, surrender our ideals.” But there is always a higher loyalty, a higher ideal, that gives this negation force. In the second place, there is Nietzsche’s method of exaggeration. Nietzsche believed in the magic of extremes to bring out the truth, the allurement that goes with all daring to the uttermost. There is, finally, his test of truth in such matters — the ability to hold out, the ordeal by fire. He wished his own philosophy to advance slowly among men, to be tried, criticized and, if need be, overcome.

Now it is quite clear, of course, that such a man will either be laughed at or hated by the crowd. It is equally clear that the ordinary philosopher will be puzzled to know just what to do with such a method. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that this is just the method, and the only method, by which the inmost truth of values may be reached. This, if I understand him, is Mr. Salter’s position. Accepting this method, then, he seeks to estimate the net result of this venture “beyond good and evil.” Recognizing that “few thinkers may less safely be, judged by single utterances than Nietzsche,” he conscientiously sets one utterance against the other, and by a process of compensation, so to speak, arrives at a fairly just estimate of the net result of his thinking on moral questions. It is by no means as sensational as we ordinarily think.

So far as the negative and critical aspect is concerned, you get a picture that does not greatly differ from that which a Frenchman like Anatole France, or still better, Paulhan, in his La Morale de L’Ironie, gives us; only, whereas the Frenchman is content to call conventional morality tactless, Nietzsche calls it by harder names. And as for the positive side, we are in a bracing atmosphere entirely lacking to the other ‘immoralists,’ so called. Far from being a “destruction of morality, root and branch, it is rather, the whole procedure”; as Nietzsche says, “only morality itself turning against its previous form.” Not only was this critic of all reverences deeply reverent; it was his fortune, or misfortune, to have the ‘instinct for perfection’ to an extraordinary degree. Simmel calls his ethics Personalism, and his adherence to the central principles of ‘idealistic’ ethics is no less certain than his abhorrence of hedonism and utilitarianism. How Mr. Salter makes this general idea clear in the details of Nietzsche’s ethical and social views must be left for the reader.

The ordinary reader will doubtless have the feeling that he has been robbed of something, in that all that is most terrible and absurd has been taken out of Nietzsche’s conceptions, and he will hardly recognize in them, perhaps, the ideas that dazzled and distressed. I am disposed to believe, however, that Mr. Salter has given us a truer picture of Nietzsche by his method of compensatory interpretation. He has made us all poorer, perhaps, by robbing us of our dearest antipathies, but infinitely richer in the belief which gradually emerges, that there is a right reason that shapes our thinking, rough hew it though we may. It is an uncomfortable thought that a brilliant mind, animated by -the sincere love of truth, could go completely astray. It savors too much of the old doctrine of original sin.

I have not been able to resist the impulse to write in a strain which harmonizes little, perhaps, with the ideal of a sober review. My desire to praise is partly an expression of personal obligations to the book, but still more of an impersonal recognition of the more excellent way in scholarship and thought. This does not mean that the book is without the defects of its qualities. The ‘fruit of lonely ways and studies,’ it often bears the marks of extreme detachment. Seeking to understand Nietzsche rather than to refute him, Mr. Salter often finds method and system where, with the best will in the world, it is a little hard to follow him. “The way here is labyrinthine — I have come near being lost in it myself,” is the author’s own candid confession at several points. I am quite sure that he has over-simplified at points, but he always lets Nietzsche do most of the talking and this brings with it its own corrective.

On a more fundamental point I would take issue with Mr. Salter’s interpretation of Nietzsche. It is his contention that Nietzsche is to be understood only as an opponent of the dominant forces of his time. I think he has made out a strong case in the main. Nietzsche’s opposition to economic imperialism, nationalism and crude egoism was as whole-souled as his opposition to socialism, hedonism and vague altruism. In a very real sense, he was above these distinctions, as he was above the crude, inept and, as Paulhan says, tactless distinctions of good and evil. In many ways he was more mediaeval than modern, in others he undoubtedly belongs to the future. But in a deeper sense Riehl is nearer right, I think, when he describes him as the “résumé of modernity.”

“To have run through the entire circle of the modern soul, to have gazed into every one of its corners,” that was, as Nietzsche himself said, “his ambition, his torture and his joy.” But not only this. Precisely in his eternal seeking and questioning, in the contradictions of his moods and intuitions, in his very self-tormenting, he becomes for us the mirror of our own souls. That is certainly not mediaeval. It is also, we may hope at least, not to be the characteristic of the future. It is a mark of dissociated personalities, as indeed most of us are. He is indeed a resume of modernity, but in that he has epitomized it, he has perhaps at the same time completed it and may help us to go beyond it. So at least we may hope.

In a note Mr. Salter suggests that the low level of American culture can be measured by our failure to understand Nietzsche. I am tempted to agree with him, although he includes me among those who live on this low level.[2] If there is one thing that this most revealing time has disclosed, it is that the day of the “Innocents Abroad” is, alas, not passed, despite our superficial acquaintance with vers libre, futurism and Nietzsche. Our abysmal ignorance, not only of the cultural, but of the political forces and tendencies of modern Europe is painfully evident in the mass of literature which the war has produced. It is doubtless too much to hope that this book will have any great effect upon the “Nietzsche nonsense,” as Bernard Shaw calls it. Those who have caught the germ will hardly look in this direction for an antidote. It is none the less comforting to know that American scholarship and culture cannot be in such a ‘parlous’ case if it can thus provide its own cure — in Mr. Salter’s book.

So far as a general estimate of Nietzsche is concerned, Mr. Salter is very guarded. But in the introduction, he makes a statement which will doubtless cause some of his readers to rub their eyes and perhaps put down the book without reading further. “I do not wish to prophesy,” he says, “but I have a suspicion that sometime, perhaps at no very distant date, writers on serious themes will be more or less classified according as they know him or not, that we shall be speaking of a pre-Nietzschean and a post-Nietzschean period in philosophy, and particularly in ethical and social analysis and speculation, and that those who have not made their reckoning with him will be as hopelessly out of date as those who failed similarly with Kant.” That sounds like another perfect Nietzscheite, but it is far from it, as I hope this review has indicated.

[1] Wilbur M. Urban, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 27, No. 3 (May, 1918), pp. 303-309.

[2] The article of mine which Mr. Salter takes as a frightful example of the state of culture in America is an Atlantic Monthly paper entitled “Tubal Cain: The Philosophy of Labor” (December, 1912, p. 789). He finds it rather sad that “scholars as well as others sometimes take these [industrial] magnates as exemplifications of Nietzsche’s superman.” I can only say that I should find it equally sad and curious. As a matter of fact, I nowhere referred to Nietzsche, but simply contrasted what I called the morals of the “Overman” with those of the “Underman,” as expressed in Syndicalism. I had no intention of identifying the overman of our industrial world with Nietzsche’s superman. They have indeed very little in common. My only point was to find two characteristic names for two types of morality, or immorality, which are, alas, as real as they are threatening.

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