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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Philosophy needs a revival. Nietzsche can help.

The philosophy of our current era is clawing and yelping, locked in a cage under watchful eyes. Its prison, the university, has devolved into a factory for toy soldiers. This is no place for a creature like philosophy. It wants to stride down the gnarled paths of a midnight wood and bathe in the light of a golden sun, joyful and unchained. Philosophy, however, is only as free as its keepers. Today’s philosophers are unwilling or unable to pronounce a confident “Yes” or “No” to something, anything. Perhaps, then, philosophy is asking for… Friedrich Nietzsche?

Nietzsche tends to be mischaracterized as a nihilist, a God-hater and even a proto-Nazi. In reality, Nietzsche was an ardent opponent of German nationalism and anti-Semitism and deeply concerned about the way humans find meaning in their lives. Part of his controversial legacy is the fault of his sister, Elisabeth, who revised Nietzsche’s words into Nazi propaganda after his mental decline. I believe, when properly examined, Nietzsche emerges as a fine candidate to be philosophy’s new friend.

Part of my goal in this column (yes, I’m starting a column halfway through the semester) is to help rehabilitate and nuance Nietzsche’s legacy. More importantly, though, I want to examine what Nietzsche’s philosophy can mean for us as students, alumni, citizens and human beings. Is Nietzsche the starting point, or even the key, for developing a new philosophical confidence and creativity? Or must we remain chained to our MLA citation manuals, to specialization, to tinkering with the words of the dead?

Before jumping in, I must note that Nietzsche’s work, by design, is elusive. In The Gay Science (1882), Nietzsche writes, “A thinker sees his own actions as experiments and questions — as attempts to find out something.” Nietzsche does not set forth doctrines or comprehensive accounts; he attempts. He issues propositions, even mocking his own ideas once he stops valuing them. In this spirit, I will attempt to avoid systematizing Nietzsche while still focusing on the ideas which recur and evolve through his life’s work.

Also, I will not deify Nietzsche. His works are a jumping-off point for this column, not ancient texts of wisdom to decipher. I will use his ideas to the extent that they help me think about various topics. Likewise, I won’t sanitize him. If it wasn’t obvious, I like Nietzsche, and people who like philosophers often selectively interpret their work. We see this with the Nietzschean scholars who brush over or even deny Nietzsche’s brutal sexism. In contrast, I plan to criticize Nietzsche’s views on gender at some point.

Other topics that I hope to cover in my column include the Mendoza College of Business, climate change, the myth of Sisyphus, vegetarianism and veganism, and more. Or none of this. It’s my column. Parallel to these topics, I will be treating this column like a playground to explore different ideas that captivate me. This should also make the column more interesting for you because writing is better when the writer wants to do the writing.

Given I will be doing some philosophy myself, I will attempt to employ a Nietzschean perspective. Nietzsche envisions something called “the philosopher of the future.” This philosopher is not only one who attempts, as outlined above; they are also a free spirit, dedicated to dispelling old prejudices and resisting dogmatism. They take pleasure in diverging from the majority and holding views which only they are crazy enough to hold… or understand. And more than anything else, they love life.

This “philosophy of the future” evokes some strong images in me. I see it as a dainty touch-and-go between the self and its objects. It is a waltz between madness and blindness. It is the impulse to grab a pen and rabidly transcribe one’s stream of consciousness. It is also the impulse to accelerate one’s mind beyond the possibility of transcription. It is cheerful irony and grave seriousness. But more than anything else, it is yet to be discovered. Does that help?

I must mention that I can only embody Nietzsche’s argument as it has struck me. I can imagine a hardened reader of Nietzsche accusing me of trivializing his work, of reducing it to a call to a more happy and intellectually free life. I equally can’t imagine Nietzsche caring that I will emphasize some parts of his work more than others. He never asked anyone to respect him, or honor him, but rather let his work speak for itself. To me, it makes sense that a college senior months away from graduation would focus on the forward-looking elements of his work and less on the precise nature of force, will and other concepts.

Nietzsche always thought he was born before his time. As the inheritors of his future, we are uniquely equipped to evaluate his ideas and decide whether they are worthy of our present. Admittedly, the time of the free spirit might still be on our horizon, or maybe it has passed, but let us experiment — attempt, if you will — and see what happens if we presuppose otherwise. What does the world look like through the eyes of an aspiring free spirit?

Jim Moster is a senior from Chicago majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and political science. He spends his days chasing serotonin and sleeping. For comments and inquiries, he can be reached at or @jimmoster on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.