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THOMAS MANN ABOUT FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE: an excerpt from «Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Light of Contemporary Events», 1947

THOMAS MANN ABOUT FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE: an excerpt from «Nietzsche's Philosophy in the Light of Contemporary Events», 1947
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Thomas Mann and Friedrich Nietzsche / Artwork: via Photoshop


In his work «Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Light of Contemporary Events», one of the greatest humanists of the 20th century, Thomas Mann, reflects on the life, worldview, and work of one of the most famous and influential philosophers of the 19th century.


His detached, analyzing glance only captures the important observations and insights of a great mind without simplifying or criticizing, as many superficial readers have been prone to do. He presents a picture of the broad sweeps of Friedrich Nietzsche’s different periods and works, his metamorphoses, the depth of his thought, and his belief in the superhuman, sometimes extrapolated to himself as an integral part of his philosophy.

Quoting Thomas Mann:


Anyone who takes Nietzsche at «face value», literally, anyone who believes him, is lost. His case is, in truth, like Seneca’s-Seneca, to whom, he says, one should give ear but never «trust and faith»


An excerpt from Thomas Mann’s «Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Light of Contemporary Events», written in 1947.

«…his mind is entirely concerned with the question of the role of culture in the formation of the philosopher, the artist, the saint — and the more striking are his conclusions. He looks almost a century ahead and sees almost exactly what we see today. For the world, the world transforming and taking on a new shape is a single world, and if a man has a highly developed sensitivity, a special «sensitivity» that reacts to the smallest irritations, he will everywhere discover, find, point out the new that is still emerging, that is still going to be.

Purely intuitively, Nietzsche anticipated the results of modern physics by combatting the mechanistic interpretation of the world by denying a causally determined world, the classical «laws of nature», «natural laws», and the repetition of identical cases. «There is no second time», says Nietzsche. There is no law according to which a certain cause must necessarily cause a certain effect.

It is wrong to interpret events according to the principle of cause and effect. In reality, it is a struggle between two unequal factors, a regrouping of forces, and the new state is by no means a consequence of the previous state but something fundamentally different from it. Dynamics therefore, instead of logic and mechanics.

Nietzsche’s «scientific intuitions,» to paraphrase Helmholtz’s remark about Goethe, have a spiritual tendency, they strain toward something, they fit into his philosophy of power, his anti-rationalism, and serve him in raising life above law—because law as such already has something «moral» in it.

Whatever the present fate of this tendency, Nietzsche has been proven right as far as the natural sciences go; for these, «law» has in the meantime been weakened to mere probability, and they have lost a great deal of their faith in the concept of causality.

Nietzsche’s ideas about the laws of physics, like all his other ideas, take him outside the bourgeois world of classical rationality into a completely new world where he himself, born under different conditions, must have felt like an alien. If socialism does not want to credit this to Nietzsche, we are entitled to assume that such socialism stands much closer to the bourgeois world than it itself suspects.

It is time to abandon the view of Nietzsche’s philosophy as a bunch of random aphorisms: his philosophy is just as completely an organized system as Schopenhauer’s, developed from one single fundamental, all-pervading thought.

But Nietzsche has this initial, basic idea in its entirety, at its root — the idea of aesthetics, and just because of this his vision of the world and his thinking must come into irreconcilable contradiction with any socialism. After all, there can be only two worldviews, only two inner attitudes: aesthetic and moral.

And if socialism is a worldview built on the strictest moral foundations, then Nietzsche is an aesthete, the most complete, the most hopeless aesthete that the history of culture has ever known, and his basic premise, which contains the seed of his Dionysian pessimism — the premise that life can be only justified as an aesthetic phenomenon — characterizes him extraordinarily accurately, his life and his work as a philosopher and poet, which can only be understood and justified as aesthetic phenomenon, can become the subject of reverent awe, for there is no doubt that his life, his whole life, including the complete mythologizing of his own self and even his insanity, is a genuine creation of art, not only in its means of expression, which are absolutely marvelous, but also in its deepest essence; it is a spectacle of astonishing lyrical and tragic power, irresistible in its appeal.


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It is remarkable enough, though quite comprehensible, that the first form in which the European spirit rebelled against the collective morality of the bourgeois era was aestheticism. It is not by chance that I put the names of Nietzsche and Wilde side by side — both are rebels, and both rebel in the name of the beautiful, although the German, the pioneer of the movement, went much farther in his rebellion, and it was associated for him with immeasurably deeper suffering, with immeasurably greater sacrifice and heroic self-overcoming.

I have read in the writings of socialist critics, especially Russian ones, that Nietzsche’s aesthetic views and judgments were often of an admirable subtlety, but that in matters of political morality he was a barbarian.

This distinction is naive, for Nietzsche’s glorification of the barbaric is nothing more than an excess of his aesthetic intoxication, and reveals indeed a proximity that we have every reason to ponder well: the proximity of aestheticism and barbarism.

Toward the end of the XIX century, their sinister closeness was not yet seen, felt, or feared-otherwise Georg Brandes, a Jew and a liberal writer could not have come upon the «aristocratic radicalism» of the German philosopher as a new nuance and even promoted Nietzsche’s philosophy in special lectures, — this is undeniable evidence of the careless self-confidence of a bourgeois age that was drawing to a close and, at the same time, a sure sign that the venerable Danish critic did not take Nietzsche’s barbarism too seriously, did not consider it «real», perceived it cum grano salis — and, of course, he was right.

Nietzsche’s aestheticism, which is a furious denial of the spirit in favor of a beautiful, strong, and wicked life the self-denial, that is, of a man who suffered deeply from life-infused his philosophical outpourings with something far-fetched, irresponsible, undependable, and passionately playful, an element of deepest irony that foils the understanding of the simpler reader.

His books are not only works of art themselves — they require art from the reader, because reading Nietzsche is a kind of art, where straightforwardness and rudeness are absolutely inadmissible and where, on the contrary, the maximum flexibility of mind, a sense of irony, and leisurely pace are necessary.


Love of wisdom — philosophy, especially classical philosophy, is one of the tools with the help of which it is possible to cognize the modern world, full of contradictions and compromises


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