Friedrich Nietzsche, by Edvard Munch (1906)

Unpublished Fragments from the Period of Dawn (Winter 1879/80-Spring 1881)

Friedrich Nietzsche, J.M. Baker Jr, Christiane Hertel (trans.), Stanford University Press, 2023, paperback, 530pp, $28

The thirteenth of nineteen volumes in the Stanford University Press edition of the German-language Friedrich Nietzsche Sämtliche Werke covers the notebooks from late 1879 to early 1881, at a time when Nietzsche was writing Dawn (Morgenröthe, 1881), the second book of his “free spirit” trilogy. Even a well-informed Nietzsche reader may draw a blank at that, as it is the least widely read of his books. These notes relate to a critique of the generation of morals, particularly the topics of dissimulation and self-deception, the subjects of Dawn. The title refers to the potential rebirth of modern man, freed from the shackles of Judeo-Christian religion and worldview, led by great self-actualised men – the Übermenschen.

The philosopher succinctly summarises his primary concern in this period so: “The greatest problem of the coming age is the eradication of moral concepts and the cleansing from our representations of moral forms or colors that have crept into them and are often difficult to recognize.”[i] He meditates on the nature of morality and how it arises and if some different system of values can govern man’s conduct. Christian morality divides people (according to their characters) into obedient slaves or mindless enforcer. Both act from character, rather than making value judgements based on personal and social good. The claims that Christian morality has the right to be considered normative (as per Pascal) are spurious, Nietzsche contends – as outlined in many of his published books. “[…] Christianity takes no pleasure in the human being.”[ii]

Nietzsche rails against misguided egalitarianism, democracy, socialism and (of course) Christianity, which he sees at the root of modern European man’s slave morality and the ultimate cause of many of civilisation’s parlous state. He sees a levelling of people as a rebellion against natural inequality and exceptional men. It makes men manageably pliable. However, Nietzsche opens the door to individualism for its own sake – the myth of meritocracy, which allows the collectivised minority to seize its power and advantages and (ultimately) its supremacy, as Gaetano Mosca argued. There are few autobiographical comments, but these are indirect and brief, so only the reader averagely acquainted with the philosopher’s life will be able to glean anything from them.

He wonders at the alienness of Judaism, which has been incorporated into European thinking through Christianity, and notes that the words of the Old Testament are (perhaps paradoxically) more accessible to us than the ancient Greeks and Romans. He repeatedly describes morality as Asian – i.e. derived from the Semitic people of the Near East – and finds it unfitting for Europeans; he also adds that he considers Stoicism Semitic. Valuations determine both our personal responses, interpersonal relations and society as a whole; if moral valuations can be altered, or the whole system abolished, then human capacity is freed. Nietzsche is no Panglossian optimist, but he sees human capacity as much greater than what the constricting morals and customs of his day permitted. Incorrect valuations wage war against each other, distracting and confusing; these conflicts demonstrate the faulty foundations of morality and must be seen clearly.

Nietzsche is ever aware of the need for geniuses; these exceptional men will lead, instruct and inspire. “To use and recognize chance is called genius. To use the expedient and familiar – morality?”[iii] He assesses the possibility of describing “an extra-moral view of the world” that is “an aesthetic one (veneration of genius)”. Tantalisingly, the fragment breaks off there. He is aware of the bad character and suffering great men cause and admits that “veneration of genius has often been unconscious devil worship.”[iv]“[A]rtists are usually intolerable as persons, and this should be subtracted from what is gained from their works.”[v]

Of the hundreds of entries (mainly in the form of notes and aphorisms) few extend longer than one page. Every page has an insight into the human condition. “Compassion without intelligence is one of the most unpleasant and disturbing phenomena […]”[vi] There are oddities, such as the author’s contention that there is no instinctive fear of death, merely aversion to the pain of dying and the unknown and that the appetite for life’s pleasures acts as more of a stimulant. Hence there is no life-preservation instinct per se. Another bon pensée is “Clever and cheerful, like a lizard in the sun”, although Nietzsche never seems such a lizard – at least, not on this splenetic showing.

The style is brusque, the diction non-technical, with entries compressed to the extreme. Yet, he allows himself digressions and occasional exclamations. As the translator explains, this directness actually generates difficulties. Unlike his published works, which are models of clear prose and precise argumentation, the notes are littered with general words that can bear several specific meanings, introducing a degree of ambiguity that the translator must adjudicate. Many of these points were never subsequently taken up again by the author, so it is hard to know which meaning he had in mind.    

There are meditations upon the greats, such as Plato, Christ, St Paul, Martin Luther, Goethe, Napoleon, Schopenhauer and others, viewed in light of their limitations as well as their achievements. Napoleon was more intent on seeming superior to others than on being superior. Nietzsche was reading a biography of Napoleon at the time, so there are extensive comments relating to Napoleon’s conduct, character and significance. Wagner – his aspirations, his ambition, his vanity – is wrestled with at length:

Wagner courts being named the German artist, but, alas, neither the grand opera nor his character is specifically German: which is why he has not as yet become dear to the populace, but instead to a class of refined and over-cultivated people – the circle to which, say, in the last century Rousseau appealed.[vii]  

The appearance of these Stanford University Press translations keeps Nietzsche vitally alive, able to dazzle, surprise and shock. As usual, the annotation and index are accompanied by an extensive and illuminating afterword on the subjects of the texts. The critical apparatus is first class and the references well judged.

[i] P. 5

[ii] P. 262

[iii] P. 18

[iv] P. 47

[v] P. 95

[vi] P. 6

[vii] P. 163

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