Email this review


Academics have a hard time with Nietzsche because he just doesn't fit into the accepted philosophical schools, while the general populace has come to think of him, one-dimensionally, as a precursor of fascism. Add the constraints of the Modern Masters series, in which life and thought must be covered in less than 200 pages, and any writer has a problem. J. P. Stern (German, Univ. of London) gets around the space limitation by substituting a long chronology for a biography. Nietzsche's life was complex, however; he had a distinguished academic career as a classical philologist, then spent just 16 years furiously writing before madness overcame him. The shorthand of the biography (1882: ""falls in love with a young Russian girl. . . Nietzsche's only love affair?"") can lead some readers to make too much of it, while Stern in fact ignores the events of the life when tackling the work. More serious still; he is among those looking for antecedents to 20th-century fascism. Instead of giving an exegesis of the writings followed by a critical evaluation, he opts to engage--and attack--Nietzsche on all fronts; and this fragmentation makes it doubly difficult for the reader to get a full and rounded picture of the subject. Stern dismisses the accuracy of Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy--in which Nietzsche counterposes an irrational, ecstatic element in Greek culture to the Socratic, rational, form-giving element--and goes on to criticize Nietzsche's apparent call for a new ""mythology"" to reinvigorate European culture. By taking this view, he not only undervalues the influence of pre-Socratic thought on Nietzsche, but also Nietzsche's influence on classical studies (recently recognized by E. R. Dodds in The Greeks and the Irrational). Similarly, one would never know from Stern's hidebound treatment that Nietzsche served as the iconoclastic precursor of Freud, Husserl, Heidegger, Foucault, et al. Nietzsche's style, he notes, ""consistently avoids the dangers of dogma and petrifaction at the price of being consistently paradoxical""; and then he tries to flatten out the paradoxes, stripping Nietzsche of his force and aligning him with Mussolini and Hitler. A wayward stab at a perhaps impossible task.

Pub Date: Aug. 30th, 1979
Publisher: Penguin