Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Where should a beginner start with Nietzsche?

A reader writes:

I am a college student out in California and I found your name among many Nietzsche blogs and thought you would be a good source for insight. Many of
my friends have got me very interested in reading Nietzsche but I feel overwhelmed
when deciding where to begin. Could you possibly give me your insight to what I
should read first and who offers the best translations? Thanks so much.

Let's start with translations. The Walter Kaufmann and Kaufmann/R.J. Hollingdale translations are still the most widely available, and they are generally fine. Kaufmann tends to sacrifice literalism in order to capture the "feel" of the German prose, and he does so well and better than most translators. (This makes his translations a bit problematic for scholars, but preferable for those new to Nietzsche.) Hollingdale's solo translations tend to be rather flat-footed, or so it seems to me. Cambridge University Press has been releasing new translations of many of Nietzsche's works, and these are generally pretty good, though I see no reason to prefer them to the Kaufmann translations. There are other translations around, of which the Clark and Swensen translation of On the Genealogy of Morality is probably most notable.

What to read first? The very first thing I read by Nietzsche was the excerpt from "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense" in Kaufmann's edition of The Portable Nietzsche. I was hooked, though as it turns out that little excerpt is not especially representative of Nietzsche's philosophy. A better place to start might be with Beyond Good and Evil, especially the Preface, and Chapters 1 ("On the Prejudices of Philosophers"), 5 ("Natural History of Morals") and 9 ("What is Noble?") (though the whole book is worth reading). That might be followed by Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality, which could be read in conjunction with the chapters of my Nietzsche on Morality discussing each essay.

From there one might go in two directions: backwards to The Gay Science, one of Nietzsche's earlier works, or forward to The Twilight of the Idols. I'd probably recommend the latter: this is a late work, not as overwrought as The Antichrist or Ecce Homo, but philosophically substantial, covering most of Nietzsche's main concerns.

There are two fine biographies of Nietzsche in English: Ronald Hayman's Nietzsche and Rudiger Safranski's Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. The latter has the virtue of giving capsule summaries of the themes of each of Nietzsche's books. The summaries aren't bad, though Safranski's philosophical understanding and competence is clearly very limited. But as a place to begin, it is useful, and the narration of Nietzsche's life is interesting.

I don't think there is a reliable and genuinely introductory book on Nietzsche in English. Michael Tanner's Nietzsche, which some people I respect do like, always struck me as neither accurate nor philosophically competent. Kaufmann's old Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist is extremely unreliable, and should be avoided. George Morgan's old What Nietzsche Means may, in some ways, be the best single volume introduction--though perhaps with too much quotation and paraphrase, compared to exposition. If you have some background in philosophy, Chapters 1-4 of my Nietzsche on Morality will introduce you to Nietzsche's moral philosophy.

I'd be curious to hear from readers where they started with Nietzsche, and what they would recommend to someone new to his work.


Reid said...

I think it's probably best to start with the first two treatises of the Genealogy. His other works may be equally good, but it is difficult to get a sense of the overall picture Nietzsche is trying to paint. The Genealogy is, more than any other of his books, I think, a sustained and fairly well structured presentation on his views on morality. I worry that students new to Nietzsche will be tempted to poke around in the other books - an aphorism here, another there - and won't see a position so much as a lot of clever insights whose relations are obscure.

Aside from your book (Brian), I think it would help a great deal to read the first two treatises along with Maudemarie Clark's "Nietzsche's Immoralism and the Concept of Morality." That can be found in the book "Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality," a collection edited by Richard Schacht. The article is about, of course, what Nietzsche is claiming when he claims to be an immoralist, but it also does a lot to show how the first two treatises are related.

If you're new to Nietzsche it is not inadvisable to read the third treatise of the Genealogy, though there are probably better things to read, e.g. Beyond Good and Evil.

Brian and I seem to be focusing on Nietzsche's ethics, though. If the student who asked the question is interested in another aspect of Nietzsche (his views on truth, say), he should let us know.

leslieglazer said...

What to start with depends on who you are and what your goals are. The comments so far are probably accurate if one has a background in philosophy and is interested in an accurate understanding of Nietzsche's arguments and overall position, but may not be as interesting to the philosophical novice or aesthetically/ literature minded person who may find the Birth of Tragedy or Thus Spake Zarathustra much more inspiring.

Errol Lord said...

What about Higgins's and Solomon's What Nietzsche Really Said. Certainly not a comprehensive introduction, but it might be helpful in dispensing some myths one might come into the endeavor thinking are true.

Reid said...

Two comments:

1) I forgot to mention that the simplest thing to do, if one is interested in Nietzsche's moral philosophy, is to get Maudemarie Clark's and Alan Swensen's translation of the Genealogy and read the clear and overall excellent introduction by Clark and the first two treatises. One book, a lot of information.

2) Leslie's comment is a good one. The Genealogy is not particularly inspiring, I don't think. Myself, I've always found The Gay Science both aesthetically appealing and inspirational.

Brian Leiter said...

Regarding Leslie Glazer's comment, I was assuming that the reader was, like the student who wrote to me, a student of philosophy wanting to start on Nietzsche. I would not really recommend anyone, though, start with The Birth of Tragedy or Zarathustra, both of which are atypical works, though in different ways.

I'm afraid I would not recommend Higgins & Solomon's What Nietzsche Really Said as an introductory text.

Aravind said...

Isn't there a forthcoming volume on Nietzsche in the Routledge Philosophers series that Brian edits? I wonder if he thinks that it might fill the gap of a "reliable and genuinely introductory book on Nietzsche in English."

Anonymous said...

I can think of no better place to start off than book IV of the Gay Science. It's (relatively) accessible, inspirational, terrific as literature (whether in the Cambridge translation or Kaufmann's), and also has some interesting philosophical content. A great whetter of the appetite. I fear that someone just starting off might be intimidated by the first three books of the Gay Science - starting at book IV, I think, might give someone the courage to go back and really think through the rest of the book(s).

CCR said...

I agree that BGE is the best place to start, and I also happen to think it's Nietzsche's greatest work. I would add that my introduction to Nietzsche was greatly enhanced by a preliminary study of the major themes in Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. This gave me a broad framework in which to situate Nietzsche's chief preoccupations, and it also helped me make sense of puzzling details (references to Schopenhauer, implicit and explicit, are pervasive). WWR is a wonderful read, but it also lends itself to synopsis. The introductory books by Christopher Janaway or Julian Young would be good places to start. I'd also recommend Bryan Magee's The Philosophy of Schopenhauer.

Mathew Wilder said...

The first textual encounter I had with Nietzsche was a volume of selections from various works organized thematically. It was not a very good translation, but it got me interested. I subsequently read a large chunk of "Zarathustra," which only whetted my appetite for more. If for nothing else but the prose, it is quite exhilarating.

I found Brian's articles available on his SSRN page and the one from the Stanford Encyclopedia quite helpful. Also, I thought Bernard Reginster's "The Affirmation of Life" was excellent.

Reading those secondary sources has given me a much better grasp of Nietzsche as I turn to more of his own writing.

Rob Sica said...

I think the single best starting point at which to begin reading Nietzsche is the 1886 Preface to HUMAN, ALL TOO HUMAN (Handwerk's 1996 Stanford UP translation), but the regulative goal of all further reading should be a firm grasp of the GENEALOGY -- "my touchstone," as he says, "for what belongs to me" -- since this entails familiarity with the published works leading up to it, including ZARATHUSTRA, and will perhaps allow one to better contemplate the unrealized trajectory of his thought suggested in the work of his last year of sanity.
As for the secondary literature, since so much of it is quite awful, and you risk wasting a lot of time that would otherwise be better spent on simply rereading (and rereading!) Nietzsche, a reliable rule of thumb is to stick with what Leiter and Clark endorse as worthwhile ( e.g., Janaway, Gemes, Risse, Ridley, Poellner, Richardson, Anderson, Reginster etc.).
Also, Bernard Williams' last three books during his life can be profitably read as adaptations of Nietzsche into the idiom of contemporary Anglo moral philosophy; and William Ian Miller’s uncommonly entertaining, psychologically astute, and erudite books HUMILIATION, ANATOMY OF DISGUST, and EYE FOR AN EYE can be read as amplifications and corroborations of the historical and speculative anthropological claims of the GENEALOGY. (Among other expertise, Miller is an Icelandic scholar, which tallies well with Nietzsche's claim that "the Icelandic sagas are really the most important document of [master, noble] morality." I would love to know of any books which more greatly merit earning the essay contest prize Nietzsche proposes in the Note which follows Treatise One of the Genealogy than these by Miller.)

Anonymous said...

I wish I'd had the benefit of this discussion before my first encounter with Nietzsche, which was in my teens. I started with Thus Spake Zarathustra, which puzzled me. So then I tried The Birth of Tragedy, which did the same. At the time I had no notion of what disciplined philosophy was. Many years passed before I returned to Nietzsche--inspired in part by a denunciatory sermon I heard on Christmas Eve, in Paris, in the mid-70s.

Brian Leiter said...

The Reginster book is a very good book, one that scholars must read. But it's not for beginners!

Drake said...

Mine probably constitutes one approach to be avoided:

Years ago, read BGE. I'd had no philosophical study up to that point, and just didn't get it at all.

Then early last year I picked up Kaufmann's "Basic Writings" (well after having got a B.A. in philosophy). To my surprise (my usual fare had been Dennett, Stich, Churchland, Stitch, Strawson, Chalmers, etc.) I was hooked from the get-go and just read the whole volume straight through. Then read it again.

Then read Kaufmann's "Portable Nietzsche," straight through.

Then "Nietzsche on Language" (Emden), "Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtue" (Hunt), "Daybreak" (Leiter-Clark) and "Affirmation of Life" (Reginster), along with the odd journal article now and then. Finishing up the Reginster now. Not sure what's next...

Drake said...

Er, Stich, that is.

Dan said...

I'm surprised no one has mentioned the Cambridge translation of "Daybreak"? I'm a mere philosophy grad student, but I started with The Genealogy and Daybreak, and found Daybreak by far the more accessible and philosophically interesting of the two.

philgrad said...

My father wanted to start reading Nietzsche recently, and I recommended The Gay Science. Since then, I've reread Twilight of the Idols, and now I think it's really the best jumping off point, at least in terms of presenting a lot of important (and well-discussed) philosophical ideas in a small, manageable text. The rhetoric is perhaps not as strong as in TSZ and Birth of Tragedy, and it doesn't have the literary quality that makes The Gay Science so brilliant and personal, but nothing, I believe, can beat it in terms of giving you a jolt of good ol' fashioned interesting philosophical ideas.

Rob Sica said...

Readers new to Nietzsche might be encouraged by him to follow Dan's suggestion:

"A book such as this is not for reading straight through or reading aloud but for dipping into, especially when out walking or on a journey; you must be able to stick your head into it and out of it again and again and discover nothing familiar around you." (Daybreak, 454)

DAYBREAK, by the way, is supposed to be the first of the upcoming titles of the resuscitated Stanford UP COMPLETE WORKS to appear -- soon, according to its new general editor Alan D. Schrift in The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 33 (2007) 64-72.

Mike said...

I'm surprised no one mentioned "Untimely Meditations". I especially think they're valuable for those who may be less sympathetic with his "position".

Brian Thomas said...

Like some of you, I started with Zarathustra, which was a mistake -- far too sophisticated for a high school student who'd recently finished Will Durant's Story of Philosophy.

Then I read some Plato (the Republic, Phaedo), and tried Beyond Good and Evil. A few more glimmers, I suppose, but still lacking. Even so, a little exposure to Plato gave me a better sense of Nietzsche's stance toward the Greeks. This I followed with Beyond Good and Evil, the Genealogy of Morality, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, the Antichrist, The Will to Power (just a distracted peek, really)...

All the while I began reading a lot of other philosophy, and Nietzsche began to open up for me somewhat.

About this time I read Kaufmann's Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, which gave me more context about German literary culture. (Brian, your aside about Kaufmann raises a question I've had -- what's a reliable critique of K's book? Any guidance, or could you give us a brisk couple of insights into K's exegetical drawbacks?)

Mostly in Kaufmann translation I went to the Birth of Tragedy, the Case of Wagner. The Gay Science I flipped through, and when I re-read it recently with a lot more attention I was bowled over by its power, concision and depth. I wish I'd started all my reading of Nietzsche with Chapter 5 of this splendid book.

Around I here I also gobbled up Schopenhauer as Educator, which I think would also make a fine introduction. Though I didn't realize this until I actually read some Schopenhauer.

Meanwhile, I was studying the philosophy of science, Marxism and Rawls as a philosophy undergraduate. (Yes, this was the '70s.) The more I read, the more Nietzsche receded in importance to me, or so I thought.

In the early eighties, I encountered Stanley Rosen's The Limits of Analysis, which made me realize how meager my appreciation of Nietzsche had been. Rosen demonstrated (in his often tough to read prose) that Nietzsche is a trenchant, inescapable critic of many various directions taken by modern philosophy.

I've been reading (and rereading) much more Nietzsche lately. I think that I'd have been better off reversing the order I actually followed. On the other hand, maybe I can cheat when the Eternal Return comes and just rearrange the sequence in which I read things. Much more efficient.

A word of gratitude -- Brian, many thanks for this blog as well as your others. I find them stimulating and full of useful suggestions about secondary works and issues in philosophy.

David Y. said...

I've used Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil in freshman courses (so presumably my students' first exposure to Nietzsche) several times, and both work well. I've also taught freshman seminars (really graduate-model stuff: 3 hours, once a week, lots of independent secondary reading) on Zarathustra, which worked fine. Zarathustra strikes me as more self-contained than Nietzsche's other work, so it actually works pretty well as an introduction. There are secondary close readings of Zarathustra, too. I know of Lampert and Rosen, neither of which are fabulous, but Lampert especially was helpful for some of the freshmen; Rosen's more for specialists.

I've been trying to remember what I read first...and except for a vague feeling that it might have been the Genealogy, I'm surprised to find that I can't remember!

Brian Leiter said...

Thanks for all the interesting comments about "first encounters" with Nietzsche. Since Stanley Rosen has now been mentioned twice, I feel I ought to note my extreme skepticism about his work, both on Nietzsche and more generally (his book on "The Limits of Analysis" mostly illustrates how little he knows about the traditions in philosophy he purports to be attacking). Lampert is a Straussian, which is usually an unhappy attribute in a scholar, though his Zarathustra commentary has some useful material.

A volume on Nietzsche has been commissioned for the Routledge Philosophers series I edit, but it is not yet under contract. But, yes, my hope is that this would prove to be a sound introductory text.

Levinas2006 said...

Good morning Doctor,

I am interested in finding a stylistic study of nietzsche, strict philology that analyses his use of German. Can you point me to something ?

Rob Sica said...

Maudemarie Clark's "Nietzsche" entry for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998) is worth mentioning.

Greg Afinogenov said...

"Schopenhauer as Educator" is a fantastic place to start. Twilight of the Idols is a nice romp. Move up to The Gay Science, and thence to Zarathustra. If you still want to read more, read Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil.

I must be the only lover of Nietzsche to have a distaste for BGE. Of what I've read, it's the most boring and the least life-affirming.

But "Schopenhauer as Educator" is vital and oh, so brilliant.

rarefactions said...

Started with "The Gay Science", and would also recommend starting with it primarily because if provides both short and longer aphorisms as well as some of the most basic concepts Nietzsche is famous for. These include, of course, the "Eternal Recurrence".


Anonymous said...

Brian -

I am curious why you suggest *not* starting with the Birth of Tragedy?

I certainly agree with the point about Zarathustra, but BT always seemed like a good place to start...

Brian Leiter said...

I realize that there are some unanswered questions in this thread; I'll try to address them in a separate post after the New Year.

El Koppsio said...

Can anyone advise what the best secondary literature is on Nieztsche on greek tragedy? I am keen to read about his views developed on this topic throughout his writings and not just the Birth of Tragedy. I am also keen to read about how these developments reflect the development of his moral philosophy more generally. Thanks!

Anonymous said...


You say that Kaufmann's bio is extremely unreliable. What is the basis for your claim here? Is this view common among Nietzsche scholars?

ccr said...

el koppsio,

I would start with Albert Henrichs' article in The Blackwell Companion to Greek Tragedy (2005). I also think Geuss' introduction to the Cambridge translation of BT is very useful. Silk and Stern's 1981 book "Nietzsche on Tragedy" is (as far as I can tell) still the best book on the subject. It's very good intellectual history and gives a balanced assessment of Nietzsche's importance for classical scholarship. I didn't think it went deep enough into the philosophical issues, though. Nussbaum has an interesting article in "Nietzsche, Philosophy and the Arts" (1998). I wouldn't recommend James Porter's "The Invention of Dionysus". Stephen Halliwell has some provocative things to say about Nietzsche in "The Aesthetics of Mimesis", but that book is mainly about Plato and Aristotle.
Nietzsche has very little to say about Greek tragedy in his later writings, but he continues to be preoccupied with some of BT's central themes (namely, the Dionysian drive and the problem of Socratism). The last chapter of Reginster's "The Affirmation of Life" discusses Dionysian wisdom in the broader context of Nietzsche's later ethical concerns.

Howard said...

wouldn't I be too late to ask a question here? hopefully it is not: can prof. leiter and also other nietzsche comments on Mark Warren's Nietzsche and Political Thought? It appears that my teacher, Prof. Jiwei Ci, at the University of Hong Kong, is really fond of it.

Brian Leiter said...

It is most definitely not a book I would recommend. It is not clearly written and it is not philosophically literate.

Anonymous said...

I would recommend "Beyond Good Evil." It will keep you up at night.

Secondly, in general, I find it odd that this blog is so full of references to Nietzsche's "moral philosophy"...the term just seems off.

To me, he seems more of a anti-philosopher in the area of morals.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Leiter, what do you think of the following books? A simple thumbs up or thumbs down is fine if you are pressed for time.

Ansell-Pearson, Kieth. An Introduction to Nietzsche as Political Thinker

Appel, Fredrick. Nietzsche Contra Democracy.

Conway, Daniel W. Nietzsche & the Political.

Del Caro, Adrian. Nietzsche contra Nietzsche: Creativity and the Anti-Romantic.

Detwiler, Bruce. Nietzsche and the Politics of Aristocratic Radicalism. Chicago: The University
of Chicago Press, 1990.

Dombowsky, Don. Nietzsche’s Machiavellian Politics

Thiele, Leslie Paul. Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of the Soul: A Study of Heroic

Anonymous said...

Another way of looking at it is to start at the end with his argument of "Dionysus versus the Crucified." Over the last ten years or so, there has been a considerable amount of work devoted to the dependence of the canonical Christian and heretical gnostic gospels on earlier pagan sources such as Dionysus, Horus and Zarathustra (Zoroaster). This thesis that Jesus never actually existed is reflected in the works of prof-s Robert M. Price, Tom Harpur, and to a lesser extent in the work of popular writers like Timothy Freke and Earl Doherty. One could make a farely interesting argument that Nietzsche ultimately wanted to say (especially given some of the academic trends of his time), aside from the secondary remarks about current morality, that the foundation of the west, IE., Christian morality, was ultimately based on a lie. We read, for instance, in Euripides, a very popular play preceeding Christianity, regarding Dionysus, that "E'en though he be no god, as thou assertest, still say he is; be guilty of a splendid fraud, declaring him the son of Semele, that she may be thought the mother of a god, and we and all our race gain honour." This was reflected in Plato's 'Politeia' and could have become the entire impetus for rehashing the Dionysus myth in the figure of Christ. As a secondary note, and all you need to do, for example, is look at the index of the annotated version of the New Jerusalem Bible under 'truth and lies' to see it was permitted in the old testament in places to lie if it was done in the service of God. In terms of scholarship, it is still quite recent after his death, but it seems to me that a beginning place and overview of Nietzsche's philosophy has to take into consideration his fundamental polemic against Christianity.

Arlene said...

You write very well.

david mc callum said...

I came to Nietzsche via Bertrand Russell's hostility; as the juxtaposition of Russell's intellectual respect for Nietzsche, alongside his severe hostility, intrigued me. I sensed that Nietzsche had struck a "sore spot" in philosophy.

My first random read was BT and I found it largely indigestible. Undaunted, I next read Hollingdale's "Nietzsche Reader". Nietzsche's massive vanity at the book's beginning did not bode well, but by the end I was hooked.

I agree with Brian's comment that Michael Tanner's "Nietzsche" is not without flaws and limitations, but as a slender introductory work I would nevertheless recommend it strongly. It strikes me in tone and substance as more sincerely
"Nietzschean" than almost all academic books on Nietzsche I have unfruitfully endured.

Personally, I find a Christian like Pascal had much more relevance
for Nietzsche than, for example, Kant(a point Nietzsche himself makes, both explicitly and implicitly); thus echoing Tanner's claim that Nietzsche's now massive popularity in academia would have seemed to him "like a final defeat" - for nothing was more alienating and infuriating to Nietzsche, than the "typical freethinker".

As a first read, I would recommend either Daybreak (one of my favourites) or GS. In fact, perhaps the first thing to read is GS 125, and discover whether your affinity lies with the "madman" or with those in the "marketplace". If the latter, then I wouldn't bother reading Nietzsche at all.

Narziss said...

Going through other people's material on Nietzsche, I decided to tack-on Michael Tanner's VSI on Nietzsche, since it was so short. I found even the negative statements that the book is not very philosophically competent to be generous. What an awful book! Should be taken off the shelf---haha. I was so repulsed that I revenged myself on the book's Amazon page-> http://www.amazon.com/Nietzsche-Very-Short-Introduction-Introductions/product-reviews/0192854143/ref=cm_cr_dp_synop?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending#R3RV2X6KYU9J7T

Michael Tanner's Very Short Introduction to Nietzsche should be avoided and would, in the worst manner, mislead a beginner.

Anonymous said...

I would be curious as to know what objections you have towards Kaufmann's "Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist" which would cause you to deem it unreliable.

I am reading it. now and I find it quite enlightening.

By the way, I started with "On the Genealogy of Morals"

justinstadlbauer said...

What about Deleuze's "Nietzsche and Philosophy"?? I too am more or less a beginner with Nietzsche and Continental philosophy in general. I thought Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche, however, was a very good introduction. The chart before Chapter 4 was very insightful...

Brian Leiter said...

I think it was Lester Hunt who said of Deleuze's book that it is less clear than the philosopher whom it is about, which is not a virtue in a commentary. I certainly recommend Deleuze's book for advanced students, but not for beginners.

Jack said...

Hi Brian,

I'd be interested to see what you thought of Richard Schachts's 'Nietzsche' in the Arguments of the Philosophers range.


Brian Leiter said...

I think the Schacht book is a useful text for someone relatively new to Nietzsche and/or philosophy. It's quite comprehensive and well-documented, though it does give equal weight to all the unpublished works in its overall interpretation.