Menu Close



Page with ornament
The Database of Ornament


    SO far I have attempted to follow with little or no comment
what seems to me the main current of Nietzsche’s thought.
It may be admitted that there is some question as to
which is the main current. For my own part I have
no hesitation in asserting that it is the current which
expands to its fullest extent between 1876 and 1883 in
what I term Nietzsche’s second or middle period ; up to then he had not
gained complete individuality ; afterwards came the period of uncontrolled
aberrations. Thus I am inclined to pass lightly over the third period, during
which the conception of “master-morality” attained its chief and most rigid
emphasis, although I gather that to Nietzsche’s disciples as to his foes this con-
ception seems of primary importance. This idea of “master-morality” is in
fact a solid fossilized chunk, easy to handle for friendly or unfriendly hands.
The earlier and more living work—the work of the man who truly said that it
is with thinkers as with snakes : those that cannot shed their skins die—is
less obviously tangible. So the “master-morality” it is that your true
Nietzschian is most likely to close his fist over. It would be unkind to say
more, for Nietzsche himself has been careful to scatter through his works, on
the subject of disciples and followers generally, very scathing remarks which
must be sufficiently painful to the ordinary Nietzschian.

    We are helped in understanding Nietzsche’s philosophic significance if we
understand his precise ideal. The psychological analysis of every great
thinker’s work seems to reveal some underlying fundamental image or thought
—often enough simple and homely in character—which he has carried with
him into the most abstract regions. Thus Fraser has found good reason
to suppose that Hegel’s main ideas were suggested by the then recent
discovery of galvanism. In Nietzsche’s case this key is to be found in the
persistent image of an attitude. As a child, his sister tells us, he had been
greatly impressed by a rope-dancer who had performed his feats over the
market-place at Naumburg, and throughout his work, as soon as he had

58                                  THE SAVOY

attained to real self-expression, we may trace the image of the dancer. “I do
not know,” he somewhere says, “what the mind of a philosopher need desire
more than to be a good dancer. For dancing is his ideal, his art also,
indeed his only piety, his ‘divine worship.'” In all Nietzsche’s best work we
are conscious of this ideal of the dancer, strong, supple, vigorous, yet harmonious
and well-balanced. It is the dance of the athlete and the acrobat rather than
the make-believe of the ball-room, and behind the easy equipoise of such
dancing lie patient training and effort. The chief character of good dancing is
its union of the maximum of energetic movement with the maximum of well-
balanced grace. The whole muscular system is alive to restrain any excess, so
that however wild and free the movement may seem it is always measured ;
excess would mean ignominious collapse. When in his later years Nietzsche
began, as he said, to “philosophize with the hammer,” and to lay about him
savagely at every hollow “idol” within reach, he departed from his better ideal
of dancing, and his thinking became intemperate, reckless, desperate.

    Nietzsche had no system, probably because the idea that dominated his
thought was an image, and not a formula, the usual obsession of philosophers,
such as may be clapped on the universe at any desired point. He remarks in
one place that a philosopher believes the worth of his philosophy to lie in the
structure, but that what we ultimately value are the finely carven and separate
stones with which he builded, and he was clearly anxious to supply the
elaborated stones direct. In time he came to call himself a realist, using the
term, in no philosophic sense, to indicate his reverence for the real and essen-
tial facts of life, the things that conduce to fine living. He desired to detach
the “bad conscience” from the things that are merely wicked traditionally, and
to attach it to the things that are anti-natural, anti-instinctive, anti-sensuous.
He sought to inculcate veneration for the deep-lying sources of life, to take us
down to the bed-rock of life, the rock whence we are hewn. He held that man,
as a reality, with all his courage and cunning, is himself worth)’ of honour, but
that man’s ideals are absurd and morbid, the mere dregs in the drained cup of
life ; or, as he eventually said—and it is a saying which will doubtless seal his
fate in the minds of many estimable persons—man’s ideals are his only partie
honteuse, of which we may avoid any close examination. Nietzsche’s “realism”
was thus simply a vigorous hatred of all dreaming that tends to depreciate the
value of life, and a vivid sense that man himself is the ens realissimun.

    To recognize the free and direct but disconnected nature of Nietzsche’s
many-sided vision of the world is to lessen the force of his own antagonisms
as well as of the antagonisms he has excited. The master-morality of his later

                              FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE                    59

days, on which friends and foes have alike insisted, is a case in point. This
appears to have been hailed, or resented, as a death-blow struck at the
modern democratic régime. To take a broad view of Nietzsche’s philosophic
development is to realize that both attitudes are alike out of place. On this
matter, as on many others, Nietzsche moved in a line which led him to face an
opposite direction in his decay from that which he faced in his immaturity.
He began by regarding democracy as the standard of righteousness, and
ended by asserting that the world only exists for the production of a few
great men. It would be foolish to regard either of the termini as the last
outpost of wisdom. But in the passage between these two points many
excellent things are said by the way. Nietzsche was never enamoured of
socialism or democracy for its own sake ; he will not even admit, reasonably
enough, that we have yet attained democracy ; though the horses, indeed, are
new, as yet “the roads are the same eld roads, the wheels the same old
wheels.” But he points out that the value of democracy lies in its guarantee
of individual freedom : Cyclopean walls are being built, with much toil and
dust, but the walls will be a rampart against any invasion of barbarians or
any new slavery, against the despotism of capital and the despotism of party.
The workers may regard the walls as an end in themselves ; we are free to
value them for the fine flowers of culture which will grow in the gardens they
inclose. To me, at least, this attitude of Nietzsche’s maturity seems the
ample defence of democracy.

    Nietzsche was not, however, greatly interested in questions of govern-
ment ; he was far more deeply interested in questions of morals. In his treat-
ment of morals—no doubt chiefly during the last period—there is a certain
element of paradox. He grows altogether impatient of morals, calls himself
an immoralist, fervently exhorts us to become wickeder. But if any young
disciple came to the teacher asking, “What must I do to become wickeder?”
it does not appear that Nietzsche bade him to steal, bear false witness, commit
adultery, or do any other of the familiar and commonly-accepted wicked-
nesses. Nietzsche preached wickedness with the same solemn exaltation as
Carducci lauded Satan. What he desired was far indeed from any rehabili-
tation of easy vice ; it was the justification of neglected and unsanctified

    At the same time, and while Nietzsche’s immoralist is just as austere a
person as the mere moralists who have haunted the world for many thousand
years, it is clear that Nietzsche wished strictly to limit the sphere of morals.
He never fails to point out how large a region of life and art lies legitimately


60                                  THE SAVOY

outside the moral jurisdiction. In an age in which many moralists desire to
force morals into every part of life and art—and even assume a certain air of
virtue in so doing—the “immoralist” who lawfully vindicates any region for
free cultivation is engaged in a proper and wholesome task.

    No doubt, however, there will be some to question the value of such a
task. Nietzsche the immoralist can scarcely be welcome in every camp,
although he remains always a force to be reckoned with. The same may be
said of Nietzsche the freethinker. He was, perhaps, the typical freethinker
of the age that comes after Renan. Nietzsche had nothing of Renan’s genial
scepticism and smiling disillusionment ; he was less tender to human weak-
ness, for all his long Christian ancestry less Christian than the Breton
seminarist remained to the last. He seems to have shaken himself altogether
free of Christianity—so free, that except in his last period he even speaks of it
without bitterness—and he remained untouched by any mediaeval dreams, any
nostalgia of the cloister such as now and then pursues even those of us who
are farthest from any faith in Christian dogma. Heathen as he was, I do not
think even Heine’s visions of the gods in exile could have touched him ; he
never felt the charm of fading and faded things. It is remarkable. It is
scarcely less remarkable that, far as he was from Christianity, he was equally
far from what we usually call “paganism,” the pasteboard paganism of easy
self-indulgence and cheerful irresponsibility. It was not so that he under-
stood Hellenism. In a famous essay, Matthew Arnold once remarked that
the ideal Greek world was never sick or sorry. Nietzsche knew better. The
greater part of Greek literature bears witness that the Hellenes were for ever
wrestling with the problems of pain. And none who came after have more
poignantly uttered the pangs of human affairs, or more sweetly the con-
solations of those pangs, than the great disciples of the Greeks who created
the Roman world. The classic world of nymphs and fauns is an invention
of the moderns. The real classic world, like the modern world, was a world
of suffering. The difference lies in the method of facing that suffering.
Nietzsche chose the classic method from no desire to sport with Amaryllis
in the shade, but because he had known forms of torture for which the mild
complacencies of modern faith seemed to offer no relief. If we must regard
Nietzsche as a pagan, it is as the Pascal of paganism. The freethinker, it is
true, was more cheerful and hopeful than the believer, but there is the same
tragic sincerity, the same restless self-torment, the same sense of the abyss.

    There still remains Nietzsche, the apostle of culture, the philosopher
engaged in the criiicism of life. From first to last, wherever you open his

                              FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE                    61

books, you light on sayings that cut to the core of the questions that every
modern thinking man must face. I take, almost at random, a few passages
from a single book : of convictions he writes that “a man possesses opinions
as he possesses fish, in so far as he owns a fishing-net ; a man must go fishing
and be lucky, then he has his own fish, his own opinions ; I speak of living
opinions, living fish. Some men are content to possess fossils in their cabinets
—and convictions in their heads.” Of the problem of the relation of science to
culture he says well : “The best and wholesomcst thing in science, as in
mountains, is the air that blows there. It is because of that air that we
spiritual weaklings avoid and defame science ;” and he points out that the
work of science—with its need for sincerity, infinite patience, complete self-
abnegation—calls for men of nobler make than poetry needs. When we have
learnt to trust science and to learn from it, then it will be possible so to tell
natural history that “everyone who hears it is inspired to health and gladness
as the heir and continuer of humanity.” This is how he rebukes those foolish
persons who grow impatient with critics : “Remember that critics are insects
who only sting to live and not to hurt : they want our blood and not our pain.”
And he utters this wise saying, himself forgetting it in later years : “Growth
in wisdom may be exactly measured by decrease in bitterness.” Nietzsche
desires to prove nothing, and is reckless of consistency. He looks at every
question that comes before him with the same simple, intent, penetrative gaze,
and whether the aspects that he reveals are new or old he seldom fails to
bring us a fresh stimulus. Culture, as he understood it, consists for the
modern man in the task of choosing the simple and indispensable things from
the chaos of crude material which to-day overwhelms us. The man who will
live at the level of the culture of his time is like the juggler who must keep a
number of plates spinning in the air ; his life must be a constant training in
suppleness and skill so that he may be a good athlete. But he is also called
on to exercise his skill in the selection and limitation of his task. Nietzsche
is greatly occupied with the simplification of culture. Our suppleness and
skill must be exercised alone on the things that are vital, essential, primitive ;
the rest may be thrown aside. He is for ever challenging the multifarious
materials for culture, testing them with eye and hand ; we cannot prove them
too severely, he seems to say, nor cast aside too contemptuously the things
that a real man has no need of for fine living. What must I do to be saved ?
what do I need for the best and fullest life?—that is the everlasting question
that the teacher of life is called upon to answer. And we cannot be too
grateful to Nietzsche for the stern penetration—the more acute for his ever

62                                  THE SAVOY

present sense of the limits of energy—with which he points us from amid the
mass to the things which most surely belong to our eternal peace.

     Nietzsche’s style has often been praised. The style was certainly the man.
There can be little doubt, moreover, that there is scarcely any other German
style to compare with it, though such eminence means far less in a country
where style has rarely been cultivated than it would mean in France or even
England. Sallust awoke his sense for style, and may account for some
characteristics of his style. He also enthusiastically admired Horace as the
writer who had produced the maximum of energy with the minimum of
material. A concentrated Roman style, significant and weighty at every
point, œre perennius, was always his ideal. Certainly the philologist’s aptitudes
helped here to teach him the value and force of words, as jewels for the gold-
smith to work with, and not as mere worn-out counters to slip through the
fingers. One may call it a muscular style, a style wrought with the skilful
strength of hand and arm. It scarcely appeals to the ear. It lacks the restful
simplicity of the greatest masters, the plangent melody, the seemingly un-
conscious magic quivering along our finest-fibred nerves. Such effects we
seem to hear now and again in Schopenhauer, but rarely or never from any other
German. This style is titanic rather than divine, but the titanic virtues it
certainly possesses in fullest measure : robust and well-tempered vigour, con-
centration, wonderful plastic force in moulding expression. It becomes over-
emphatic at last. When Nietzsche threw aside the dancer’s ideal in order to
“philosophize with the hammer,” the result on his style was as disastrous as
on his thought ; both alike took on the violent and graceless character of the
same implement. He speaks indeed of the virtue of hitting a nail on the head,
but it is a less skilled form of virtue than good dancing.

     Whether he was dancing or hammering, however, Nietzsche certainly
converted the whole of himself into his work, as in his view every philosopher
is bound to do, ” for just that art of transformation is philosophy.” That he
was entirely successful in being a “real man” one may doubt. His excessive
sensitiveness to the commonplace in life, and his deficiency in the sexual
instinct—however highly he may have rated the importance of sex in life—
largely cut him off from real fellowship with the men who are most ” real ” to
us. He was less tolerant and less humane than his master Goethe ; his incisive
insight, and, in many respects, better intellectual equipment, are more than
compensated by this lack of breadth. But every man works with the limita-
tions of his qualities, just as we all struggle beneath the weight of the super-
incumbent atmosphere ; our defects are even a part of our qualities, and it

                              FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE                    63

would be foolish to quarrel with them. Nietzsche succeeded in being himself,
and it was a finely rare success. Whether he was a “real man” matters less.
With passionate sincerity he expressed his real self and his best self, abhorring,
on the one hand, what with Verlaine he called “literature,” and, on the other,
all mere indigested material, the result of that mental dyspepsia of which he
regarded Carlyle as the supreme warning. A man’s real self, as he repeated
so often, consists of the things which he has truly digested and assimilated ;
he must always “conquer” his opinions ; it is only such conquests which he
has the right to report to men as his own. His thoughts are born of his pain ;
he has imparted to them of his own blood, his own pleasure and torment.
Nietzsche himself held that suffering and even disease are almost indispens-
able to the philosopher ; great pain is the final emancipator of the spirit,
those great slow pains that take their time, and burn us up like green wood.
“I doubt whether such pain betters us,” he remarks, “but I know that it
deepens us.” That is the stuff of Nietzsche’s Hellenism, as expressed in the
most light-hearted of his books. Virescit voltiere virtus. It is that which
makes him, when all is said, a great critic of life.

    It is a consolation to many—I have seen it so stated in a respectable
review—that Nietzsche went mad. No doubt also it was once a consolation
to many that Socrates was poisoned, that Jesus was crucified, that Bruno was
burnt. But hemlock and the cross and the stake proved sorry weapons
against the might of ideas even in those days, and there is no reason to suppose
that a doctor’s certificate will be more effectual in our own. Of old time we
killed our great men as soon as their visionary claims became inconvenient ;
now, in our mercy, we leave the tragedy of genius to unroll itself to the bitter
close. The devils to whom the modern Faustus is committed have waxed
cunning with the ages. Nietzsche has met, in its most relentless form, the fate
of Pascal and Swift and Rousseau. That fact may carry what weight it will
in any final estimate of his place as a moral teacher : it cannot touch his
position as an immensely significant personality. It must still be affirmed
that the nineteenth century has produced no more revolutionary and
aboriginal force.

                                                                                                Havelock Ellis.

MLA citation:

Ellis, Havelock. “Friedrich Nietzsche III.” The Savoy, vol. 4, August 1896, pp. 57-63. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.