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John Sanford, News Service (650) 736-2151; e-mail:

100 years after death, Nietzsche's popularity keeps growing

Until recently, Jim Fox, a 73-year-old San Jose resident and retired quality-insurance manager for General Electric's nuclear-energy business, didn't know much about Friedrich Nietzsche.

"I'd heard the Nazi rumor, and that's about all," he said. "I wanted to find out what was going on. He's referenced quite often by solid authors."

Fox was one of more than 30 people who enrolled in "Nietzsche in the 21st Century" (Philosophy 29), a five-week Stanford Continuing Studies course held earlier this spring. Many of the students were working professionals; others were retired. But most were vaguely aware that the work of the 19th-century philosopher, who pronounced God dead and whose writings were appropriated by the Nazis, had been misrepresented in the past, and they wanted to find out what the guy was really trying to say.

"People talk about the Antichrist, and you really don't know about the source of these things," said Marie Lomas, a 58-year-old Los Altos resident who works for a company specializing in accident reconstruction and biomechanics. "Just plain curiosity" prompted her to enroll in the course, she said.

Bob Gex, a 74-year-old Palo Alto resident who is retired after working as a librarian at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center for 35 years, said he was "always kind of interested in Nietzsche but didn't really like him."

"I thought I'd find out more about what he was writing and see what his ideas were," Gex said. "I'm much more liberal-minded about Nietzsche now than before [the class]."

Many of the students were motivated by a general interest in philosophy. One man quipped that he just wanted to be able to say that he had taken a course at Stanford.

In any case, "Nietzsche in the 21st Century" attracted more students than Nietzsche himself did during any of his years at the University of Basel, where he began teaching in 1869 as a professor of classical philology at the age of 24.

During his lifetime, he wrote more than a dozen philosophical texts. His first book, The Birth of Tragedy, was published in 1872. Among philological circles of the time, the book raised eyebrows for its lack of scholarly references or quotes, as well as for its iconoclasm: Nietzsche emphasized a carnal aspect of Greek civilization in contrast with the 19th-century conventional wisdom of a simple, noble and rational pre-Socratic Greece ­ the picture set forth by Johann Winckelmann's History of Ancient Art (1764).

The Birth of Tragedy was Nietzsche's last published foray into classical philology. In 1879, he left the university. And even though it has remained one of his most popular books, it is his later writings ­ especially the phrases and terms associated with them ­ for which he is best known: Take, for example, the notion of the "overman" (sometimes badly translated as the "superman"); "eternal recurrence"; "What does not destroy me, makes me stronger" (an aphorism he wrote, along with 43 others, in Twilight of the Idols, without further explanation); and, perhaps most famously, "God is dead."

'God is dead'

Nietzsche first made this existentialist claim in The Gay Science (1882) via that old literary standby, the truth-speaking madman. Nietzsche opposed the idea of a single, all-knowing God, and wanted to focus people's attention on earthly life as opposed to a future ­ and a highly suspect ­ heavenly afterlife.

He thought the notion of a better life after death furnished the grounds for the deprecation of this life, said Kristi Wilson, the instructor for the course, who also teaches at Stanford as a fellow with the Introduction to the Humanities Program. And in The Antichrist, one of Nietzsche's last books, he lays out what he views as the problems with Christianity.

Nietzsche takes strikingly different attitudes toward the Old Testament, which he respected, and the New Testament, which he detested. He believed the New Testament didn't improve upon the Old or show any progress.

To an extent, Nietzsche respected Jesus of Nazareth, the man, and wrote: "In truth there was only one true Christian, and he died on the Cross."

"For Nietzsche, the legacy of Jesus was basically a practice of holding the kingdom of God within you and being the kingdom of God in your daily life, and he believes that this practice ­ this original Christianity ­ is possible at all times, but rare," Wilson said. "Nietzsche sees himself here as flying in the face of Luther's belief that Christian faith will produce Christian charity and Christian works. For Nietzsche, with respect to men like Paul, Luther, Knox, Torquemada and Loyola, faith served as a screen for their inability to perform Christian works ­ a mask for fanatical cruelty."

Nietzsche in the 20th and 21st centuries

Nietzsche spent most of his life lonely and wracked by a variety of health problems. On the morning of Jan. 3, 1889, he was in Turin, Italy, and saw a coachman whipping a horse in the Piazza Carlo Alberto. Nietzsche threw his arms around the horse and collapsed. He spent the last 11 years of his life in a catatonic state under the care of his sister, Elizabeth, before dying in 1900.

Silent and bedridden, Nietzsche wasn't too aware of what was going on in a room around him, much less that his sister was taking fascist, editorial liberties with his unpublished work. (Earlier, she had married a man named Bernard Förster, and they had worked to establish an Aryan, anti-Semitic colony called New Germany in Paraguay.)

Nietzsche would have been horrified to discover his name associated with Hitler's movement. On the other hand, Elizabeth was delighted. She took editorial control of her brother's literary estate and established a Nietzsche archive, where she once entertained Hitler.

Nietzsche's reputation was further tarnished by the Nazis, whose sympathizers did all they could to appropriate his writings. But doing this was not easy; it necessitated pulling statements out of context and playing other textual games of Twister. There have even been books, such Richard Oehler's Friedrich Nietzsche und die Deutsche Zukunft (1935), which attempt to identify Nietzsche with Nazi goals. (Walter Kauffman, the late Nietzsche translator, called Oehler's book "one of the most unscrupulous books ever to have come from a writer with some scholarly pretensions.")

But thanks to a growing interest in Nietzsche, the riot of popular misconception around him has started to diminish.

"In the first place, Nietzsche has made his way into popular culture. He has been mentioned on The Sopranos and in the film Good Will Hunting, is read by cultural icons like Shaquille O'Neal and Marilyn Manson, and has been fictionalized by Stanford Professor Irvin Yalom, the author of When Nietzsche Wept," Wilson said. "Secondly, there is something about Nietzsche's deep understanding of the psychology of power and radical individualism that lends itself to the efforts of some people to reconceptualize their values and morals in an age of downsizing and increasingly incomprehensible global economic trends. On the academic front, Nietzsche has become an invaluable theoretical tool for revisionist historical projects that seek to explore power dynamics in earlier periods from an interdisciplinary perspective."

The Continuing Studies Program usually offers at least one philosophy course each quarter. This summer, a five-week course on Confucian philosophy is scheduled to begin June 26.


By John Sanford

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