The Will to Power (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

The Will to Power (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)


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If there are still such things, in this ironic postmodern age, as "dangerous thoughts," surely no book is more overflowing with them than Friedrich Nietzsche's Will to Power. No other great work of recent literature has heralded the decline of modern Western civilization as emphatically. In The Will to Power many of Nietzsche's fundamental insights are encountered as they first inspired the thinker and as he first wrestled them into words. Moreover, Nietzsche's central theme of nihilism-the uncanny and pervasive feeling that life is devoid of all meaning, purpose, and value-is subjected here to a more thoroughgoing and multifaceted examination than can be found anywhere in his finished writings.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780760777770
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 03/16/2006
Series: Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 73,054
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.50(d)


If there are still such things, in this ironic postmodern age, as "dangerous thoughts," surely no book is more overflowing with them than Friedrich Nietzsche's Will to Power. No other great work of recent literature has heralded the decline of modern Western civilization as emphatically: "The whole of our culture in Europe has long been writhing in an agony of suspense which increases from decade to decade as if in expectation of a catastrophe.... I shall describe what will happen, what must necessarily happen: the triumph of Nihilism...." The Will to Power, which was posthumously compiled from notes for Nietzsche's ambitiously planned but ultimately abandoned magnum opus, provides unparalleled access to the thinking and writing processes of one of the modern era's profoundest philosophers and most talented literary stylists. In The Will to Power many of Nietzsche's fundamental insights are encountered as they first inspired the thinker and as he first wrestled them into words. Moreover, Nietzsche's central theme of nihilism-the uncanny and pervasive feeling that life is devoid of all meaning, purpose, and value-is subjected here to a more thoroughgoing and multifaceted examination than can be found anywhere in his finished writings. Had Nietzsche completed his projected book, key passages would undoubtedly have been reworked, polished, and resituated to greatly different and perhaps more powerful effect, but even in The Will to Power as we possess it today, there is a devastatingly sweeping and comprehensive depiction of the hollowness of modern Western culture's most cherished ideals and values. It is for the enduring relevance of its depiction of the decadence of modern Western civilization and its suggestions for a constructive response that The Will to Power remains an essential part of the contemporary literary cannon.

Friedrich Nietzsche was born in 1844 in Saxony, Germany. His father, a protestant minister, died while Nietzsche was still a youth, and as a result he was raised predominantly by three powerful women: his mother, aunt, and sister. He was a brilliant student and a prodigy in the burgeoning field of philology (the analysis of the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of ancient languages), receiving the position of full professor in the philology department of the University of Basel, Switzerland, at the unprecedented age of twenty-four. His courses, however, were in subjects too arcane to attract many students and life-long health problems increased during his tenure at Basel to the point of forcing him to step down permanently in 1879. His first book, The Birth of Tragedy Out of The Spirit of Music, published in 1872, propounded a groundbreaking reinterpretation of pre-Socratic, ancient Greek culture which ultimately supplanted the romanticized ideal of "ancient Greece" that had held sway in European intellectual circles since the Renaissance. Nietzsche's most conventionally academic book, The Birth of Tragedy was nonetheless controversial and earned its author an enduring reputation as a gifted but unduly contentious writer and thinker. His subsequent publications (which include Untimely Meditations, The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morals, Twilight of the Idols, and The Antichrist) would do little in Germany during his productive lifetime but cement this reputation. Nietzsche suffered a complete mental breakdown in late 1888 that reduced him to a near vegetative state for his remaining eleven years of life. However, in the period immediately preceding this breakdown he was at his most prolific, producing numerous major works between 1886 and 1889, four of which were penned in 1888 alone. By the time he died in 1900, his works were already becoming internationally recognized as masterpieces of philosophy and literature, prompting his custodian-sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, to publish a complete edition of his writings in 1901. It contained a first short version of The Will to Power, hastily assembled by Nietzsche's editors at his sister's behest and in accordance with an outline for the proposed work that she selected from among many Nietzsche had discarded. The edition that now goes under the title The Will to Power was significantly expanded, primarily by Nietzsche's longtime friend and close assistant, Peter Gast, and published in 1906. The facts that Nietzsche's sister was married to a well-known anti-Semite and was reported to have told Hitler he was the embodiment of her brother's ideal have caused many to view her handling of Nietzsche's literary estate-and the production of The Will to Power in particular-with suspicion. Indeed, Nietzsche's sister is largely responsible for the historical association of Nietzsche's thought with Nazism. Recent scholarship, however, has established that Förster-Nietzsche's early actions as her brother's literary executor were more likely designed to increase the sale of his works and thereby raise her own public stature than to further an ideological agenda. Moreover, close comparisons of Nietzsche's notebooks with The Will to Power have shown that the primary objective of the editors was to enhance the final publication's semblance of coherence and completeness. Though there are widely varying opinions on the merits of the project of producing and publishing The Will to Power, this now infamous collection of excerpts from Nietzsche's late notebooks has been decisive in shaping Nietzsche's legacy.

The present volume is a translation that contains passages of varying degrees of completion from Nietzsche's notes for a major work which he labored on for over half a decade and ultimately abandoned. Bearing this in mind, however, it should be noted that both the overvaluation and denigration that this work has received during the past century are undeserved. As an influential selection of exceedingly thought-provoking notes by an extraordinarily original philosopher and literary genius, it deserves serious and careful attention.

Nietzsche's knowledge of classical music, his capacity as a composer, and his one-time boundless admiration for German opera composer Richard Wagner strongly influenced his literary style. A study of the notebooks he used while writing his major works reveals that a theme occurs to him like a musical motif. It is elaborated upon in a variety of different settings, and then it often recedes as new themes emerge. Eventually, in the finished work, some themes become dominant while others are muted or omitted altogether. In the case of The Will to Power, we find the emergence, development, and experimentation with themes typical of notes for Nietzsche's completed works-but no final composition. The elements were never worked together into a unity by their author. Nonetheless, the central preoccupation of the work announces itself on virtually every page: "Nihilism is at our door: whence comes this most gruesome of all guests...?"

While a university student in Leipzig, Nietzsche read and became deeply influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. This work produced in him an awareness of nihilism as the central dilemma of contemporary European culture. The slogan "God is dead," commonly associated with Nietzsche and found in a number of his major works, refers back to this early recognition of the advent of nihilism and meant to Nietzsche, as commentator Richard Schacht states, "Traditional religious and metaphysical ways of thinking were on the wane, leaving a void that modern science could not fill and endangering the health of civilization." Nietzsche struggled with the problem of how nihilism had developed and how to react to it for his entire career. But as his thought reached maturity, he settled into the conviction that we suffer nihilism as a feeling of loss of metaphysical beliefs (e.g., belief in God, heaven, an afterlife), but that the need for metaphysical beliefs, and metaphysical beliefs themselves, have historical origins. They are not essential to human nature or well-being. Thus, to free ourselves from the experience of nihilism, we need to analyze these beliefs, expose their mundane origins, and root them out. It was to achieve these aims that Nietzsche embarked upon the project of writing The Will to Power.

Among the most elemental and historically dominant prejudices dissected in The Will to Power is our belief that we have the right to claim knowledge of truth about anything. Nietzsche anticipates many central themes of twentieth-century philosophy and the entire discipline's so-called "linguistic turn" when he emphasizes that it is necessary to think in language, but that the translation of immediate experience into words inevitably distorts and misrepresents that experience. He challenges the notion that language actually refers to anything outside of itself and makes a persuasive case for this notion having been one of mankind's oldest and most useful, but completely unprovable hypotheses. When one says "That apple is red," one takes for granted a whole host of unproven assumptions: that an apple is a thing that exists independent of its qualities, one of which, in this case, happens to be redness; that the apple could exist and still be an apple without possessing the specific quality of being red (or ripe, or smooth, or round); that this particular apple is not only red, but that it is, that it possesses being on its own, independent of anyone's perception of it; that it would persist in being even if no one any longer perceived it. All of these assumptions are essential to our use of language and our navigation of the world, but none of them, according to Nietzsche, is susceptible to any kind of definitive proof.

To his critique of language and thought, Nietzsche adds an explanation of how our most cherished metaphysical beliefs are merely the shadowy reflection of our projection of the necessary structure of language onto a supposedly independently existing outer world. He describes how values, once they could no longer be taken for granted to exist in the world of our immediate experience, were posited as existing in a realm that transcends our everyday world, and how the need to believe in and persuade others of the objectivity of our values and judgments caused this transcendent realm to blossom into a transcendent "Kingdom" where all that we desperately needed to believe but could not prove was deposited: a "true world," more real than the one we know firsthand and in comparison with which the latter came to be judged deficient. For worshiping an imagined world at the expense of the real one and promoting blind faith in the literal existence of the metaphysical presuppositions of language, Nietzsche frequently excoriates both the church and the entire Western philosophical tradition.

In a similar vein, Nietzsche attacks our supposed knowledge of our inner selves as nothing but the reflection of the projection of the deep structure of language onto a supposedly independently existing inner world. The "I," "ego," "soul," and "self" are also merely residues of language, secretly posited by the simplest sentence as independently existing entities. Implicit in the sentence "That apple is red" is also the idea that there is an "I" that sees the apple as red, that it would be the same "I" that saw the apple even if it were green, the same "I" if it no longer saw the apple. But what could possibly be pointed at to prove this? Is one really the same "I" when seeing an apple and when not? What about when one falls in love with one's assistant and out of love with one's spouse of thirty years? Or when one goes to war and first kills another person?

The inner world, as much as the outer world, is inseparably intertwined with language and the assumptions it forces us to make in order to use it to navigate existence and survive. But that we must hold certain things to be true and real in order to function does not prove that they really are so, merely that we must hold them to be so.

According to Nietzsche, however, humanity's irrepressible need for explicit understanding of the validity of the beliefs that it must hold certain is now proving to be its undoing. For this "will to truth" has resulted in the modern time in the cultivation of the scientific method-the rigorous analysis and testing of all assumptions that enables progress in modern science and technology. And as the scientific method has been turned in the direction of the human mind that invented it, it has begun the inevitable process of revealing that that mind is incapable of accessing any absolutely certain knowledge. Rather, everything it holds to be true is held to be so in so far as it must be held to be so to achieve a limited purpose or satisfy a specific need. Language, thought, and truth are all inseparably connected to the (often unconscious) objectives of the speaker, thinker, and knower. "Truth" is always relative to the goals of the one who claims to possess it.

This realization, Nietzsche asserts, is now infiltrating the West, and it will eventually sweep everyone up in its tide. This will leave many individuals stranded with the nihilistic view that if their most cherished ideals are inalterably uncertain, life can no longer have a genuinely meaningful purpose. Belief in the unavoidable arrival and spread of nihilism is widely and correctly associated with Nietzsche. What is less generally recognized is that nihilism for Nietzsche is not the endpoint of the current intellectual progression, but rather a way station on the journey from mankind as it has been, to mankind as it has the higher potential to be.

Thinking through the labyrinth of nihilism in order to find a path to a rewarding life lived beyond, but not in denial of, nihilism, comprises the concern that dominates the third and fourth books of The Will to Power and that is at the core of Nietzsche's reflections on "the will to power as art." Ultimately, for Nietzsche, art provides the answer to life-affirmation in the era when metaphysical beliefs are no longer persuasive. Art serves no useful goal. It is self-satisfying, both in its creation and contemplation. To create one's life as an ongoing and unfinished work of art is what, according to Nietzsche, provides satisfaction to life and justifies living without a "higher purpose." There are significant precursors in the philosophical tradition of German Idealism to Nietzsche's notion that such a "self-creating genius" (as, for example, Goethe and Shakespeare were widely held to be) represents the goal of the human species. With Nietzsche, however, this ideal type is stripped of all its metaphysical trappings and is no longer seen as the pinnacle of creation, expressing the universe's own overflowing creativity. Rather, the spontaneous creative activity of the artist is posited as the manifestation of a non-mystical, non-superstitious embrace of unvarnished existence: in Nietzsche's terms, "saying Yes to life" just as it is and always has been.

Though many notes in The Will to Power are devoted to this theme, the idea of art as the solution to nihilism is ultimately very tentatively worked out, both here and in Nietzsche's writings as a whole. The opaque nature of this solution to what, for many readers of Nietzsche, is not an abstract theoretical problem but a genuinely pressing psychological dilemma has induced many Nietzsche interpreters to expand upon what Nietzsche explicitly said on the subject by treating his creative activity as exemplary of what he apparently had difficulty articulating. Indeed there are passages both in Nietzsche's books and in his notes and letters that indicate he understood himself to be realizing through his own creative activity what he was advocating as the way to overcome nihilism. However, if one turns to Nietzsche's biography to elucidate this aspect of his thought, his ultimate fate cannot help but cast a chilling shadow over his proposed remedy. For Nietzsche became ever more isolated, misanthropic, and shrill in his final and most productive period as a creative artist.

Commentators on Nietzsche's philosophy have repeatedly wondered whether his late bitterness and final insanity indicate that, despite achieving the self-creating genius status that he describes as equivalent to the highest form of life affirmation and human achievement, without a community of peers to recognize and celebrate that achievement, and in whose similar achievements he could share, the achievement was hollow. Goethe was a successful and satisfied self-creating genius, but unlike Nietzsche he had peers whom he regarded as being fellow self-creators and enjoyed the admiration of a broader society that viewed him as expressing its own ideal essence.

Nietzsche's rejection of any grand program of political or social reform to establish a genuine sense of community is based upon a sentiment deeply ingrained in his philosophy: namely, that what constitutes genuine community for any one person or group will inevitably be experienced as oppressively suffocating by others. But Nietzsche's focus on a solution to nihilism exclusively for individuals risks undercutting that solution, for while it is designed for people who must realistically face the fact that their societies are unlikely ever to be changed into ones where they can truly feel at home, a successfully self-creating genius who lacks the recognition of a community that he or she values, will likely feel perpetually unfulfilled.

Nonetheless, if the situation Nietzsche has portrayed in The Will to Power accurately depicts contemporary reality, he can hardly be faulted for having describe it honestly, and if the dilemma he confronted over a century ago is as intractable as it still seems to be today, he can hardly be censured for faltering in his effort to invent a lasting solution. In The Will to Power, Nietzsche provides ample evidence of the seriousness with which he approached the task of comprehending and responding to nihilism-as great a seriousness as can be found in any thinker who has undertaken to meet this ultimate challenge of the late modern age. For its enduringly powerful, penetrating, and troubling reflections on the contemporary human condition and the frequent eloquence and beauty of their articulation, The Will the Power remains a work unrivaled in contemporary Western literature.

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