Carved Cascade

Woodcut of a waterfall by Reynolds Stone (1909-79)


It’s the wrong kind of waterfall to go with this passage from Nietzsche, but that can’t be helped dot dot dot colon

Am Wasserfall. — Beim Anblick eines Wasserfalles meinen wir in den zahllosen Biegungen, Schlängelungen, Brechungen der Wellen Freiheit des Willens und Belieben zu sehen; aber Alles ist nothwendig, jede Bewegung mathematisch auszurechnen. So ist es auch bei den menschlichen Handlungen; man müsste jede einzelne Handlung vorher ausrechnen können, wenn man allwissend wäre, ebenso jeden Fortschritt der Erkenntniss, jeden Irrthum, jede Bosheit. Der Handelnde selbst steckt freilich in der Illusion der Willkür; wenn in einem Augenblick das Rad der Welt still stände und ein allwissender, rechnender Verstand da wäre, um diese Pausen zu benützen, so könnte er bis in die fernsten Zeiten die Zukunft jedes Wesens weitererzählen und jede Spur bezeichnen, auf der jenes Rad noch rollen wird. Die Täuschung des Handelnden über sich, die Annahme des freien Willens, gehört mit hinein in diesen auszurechnenden Mechanismus. — Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister (1878)


AT THE WATERFALL.—In looking at a waterfall we imagine that there is freedom of will and fancy in the countless turnings, twistings, and breakings of the waves ; but everything is compulsory, every movement can be mathematically calculated. So it is also with human actions ; one would have to be able to calculate every single action beforehand if one were all-knowing ; equally so all progress of knowledge, every error, all malice. The one who acts certainly labours under the illusion of voluntariness ; if the world’s wheel were to stand still for a moment and an all-knowing, calculating reason were there to make use of this pause, it could foretell the future of every creature to the remotest times, and mark out every track upon which that wheel would continue to roll. The delusion of the acting agent about himself, the supposition of a free will, belongs to this mechanism which still remains to be calculated. — Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All-Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (1908)

Whip Poor Wilhelm

Nietzscheans are a lot like Christians, just as Nietzsche was a lot like Christ. They’re often very bad adverts for their master, and their master would have been horrified to see some of his followers. Or perhaps not: Nietzsche believed in amor fati, or acceptance of fate, after all. He also thought that the omelette of the Übermensch wouldn’t be made without breaking a lot of human eggs. But I’m sure amusement, rather than horror, would have been his reaction to Bertrand Russell’s very hostile chapter about him in A History of Western Philosophy (1945). Russell wasn’t everything Nietzsche despised – I’m not sure a single human being could combine everything Nietzsche despised – but he came pretty close. He was liberal, humanitarian, altruistic, philanthropic, philogynist, and English (kind of). If Russell had liked Nietzsche, Nietzsche would surely have whirled in his grave. But Russell didn’t, and certainly not from the perspective of the Second World War, when he wrote A History of Western Philosophy and Nietzsche still seemed heavily implicated in Nazism.

He wasn’t, of course: the naughty and nasty Nazis misinterpreted him very badly. But he’s much easier for Nazis to misinterpret than Marx is, as proved by the respective status of these two philosophers in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Russell doesn’t so much misinterpret him as mutilate and muffle him. I would have thought that anyone, Nietzschophile or not, would acknowledge the intellectual power and range of Nietzsche’s writing. I have never felt so strongly in the presence of genius as when I first read one of his books. In Wagnerian terms, he combines Wotan with Donner, infusing the subtlety and cunning of Odin into the strength and energy of Thor. I can’t read him in German and he himself said he’d have preferred to write in French. But enough of his power comes across in English even for Russell, I’d’ve thought. Not so, and not so for many other Anglophone readers, who dismiss Nietzsche as meaningless and trivial. You might as well call the sun dull and thunder quiet: Nietzsche blazes and bellows with meaning. He also, unlike many of his followers, has a sense of humour. Russell did too, but his polemic refuses to acknowledge Nietzsche’s jokes and playfulness:

His general outlook remained very similar to that of Wagner in the Ring; Nietzsche’s superman is very like Siegfried, except that he knows Greek. This may seem odd, but that is not my fault. In spite of Nietzsche’s criticism of the romantics, his outlook owes much to them; it is that of aristocratic anarchism, like Byron’s, and one is not surprised to find him admiring Byron. He attempts to combine two sets of values which are not easily harmonized: on the one hand he likes ruthlessness, war, and aristocratic pride; on the other hand, he loves philosophy and literature and the arts, especially music. Historically, these values coexisted in the Renaissance; Pope Julius II, fighting for Bologna and employing Michelangelo, might be taken as the sort of man whom Nietzsche would wish to see in control of governments. (Op. cit.)

Yes, but he justifies his likes, loves, and loathings in some of the most original, exhilarating, and interesting books ever written. Perhaps the problem was the one diagnosed by Lytton Strachey in Eminent Victorians (1918) when he discussed the antagonism between Newman and Charles Kingsley: “The controversy was not a very fruitful one, chiefly because Kingsley could no more understand the nature of Newman’s intelligence than a subaltern in a line regiment can understand a Brahmin of Benares.” Russell was the subaltern, Nietzsche the Brahmin. If Russell was clever, Nietzsche was cleverer. If Russell had read widely, Nietzsche had read wider. Russell was undoubtedly better at maths, but there have been lots of good mathematicians. Nietzsche could have echoed what Beethoven is supposed to have said to an aristocrat who offended him: “There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.” Without Russell, I don’t think the world would be a very different place: other people would have thought and written pretty much what he did. It’s difficult to say how different the world would be without Nietzsche, but one thing is certain: it would be less interesting and contain less iconoclasm. Nietzsche thought and wrote things no-one else would have or could have. As a philosopher, Russell was a competent but replaceable journalist, Nietzsche a brilliant and irreplaceable poet. He appeals to writers and artists partly because he confirms their self-importance, but the confirmation hasn’t always been wrong. I think a Deus ex Machina is likelier than the Übermensch, but either way mankind will be surpassed and Nietzsche was the one to prophesy it, not Russell. Born earlier, living shorter, he saw further, wrote better, and will be remembered longer. His moustache was bigger too. Russell was wrong to whip poor Wilhelm, but Wilhelm wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Nietzsche c. 1875

Nietzsche c. 1875

Bertrand Russell in 1907

Russell in 1907