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Paul Franco, Nietzsche’s Enlightenment: The Free Spirit Trilogy of the Middle Period

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. xviii + 262 pp. ISBN 978-0-226-25981-9. $40.00, £26.00 (cloth).

Reviewed by Keith Ansell Pearson

The texts that make up Nietzsche’s middle period, especially Human, all too Human and Dawn, still suffer from relative neglect in comparison with the treatment lavished on earlier texts such as The Birth of Tragedy and later texts such as On the Genealogy of Morality. Indeed, there are certain parts of Dawn that have hardly been read and studied at all in English-speaking reception. This makes the study by Paul Franco a very welcome addition to the literature on Nietzsche. Franco sees himself as building on the work of commentators such as Ruth Abbey who pioneered the study of the middle period Nietzsche in English-speaking scholarship. However, his aim is not simply to plug a hole in the scholarly work on Nietzsche, but rather to open up a Nietzsche that is quite different from the widespread image of him, namely, a Nietzsche who is a friend of reason, science, and the Enlightenment, and who praises the virtues of modesty and moderation in contrast to Dionysian excess and frenzy. Of course, Franco recognizes that this conception of the middle period Nietzsche requires some revision since Nietzsche imparts his own singular and unique meanings to the notions of reason and the Enlightenment.

Franco divides his text into a prologue (the birth of a free spirit) and four main parts: a part on Human all-too Human, which focuses on the problem of culture, a part on Dawn, which focuses on the topic of morality, a part on The Gay Science, which focuses on the task of incorporating knowledge, and a final part on Nietzsche’s mature philosophy. According to Franco’s reading, HH is to be conceived as a transitional work in which the knowledge-seeking free spirit takes over from the artist-spirit as the herald of cultural renewal. According to the author, it is the theme of culture that provides the key to the book as a whole and the axis around which the reflections on metaphysics, religion, art, and morality revolve. He argues that the chief weakness of Nietzsche’s earlier treatment of culture, which he shares with romanticism in general, lies in its inability to provide the unity and wholeness it so desperately seeks and yearns for. Now, the future of culture is to be based on knowledge and science, not on religion or art. Dawn is read as a “complete breakthrough” (p. xi), in which morality moves to center-stage—the author’s thesis of how this takes place differs from that advanced by Clark and Leiter in their Introduction to the Cambridge University Press edition of Daybreak—and in which the main polemical target of the book is the utilitarianism of his friend Paul Rée and Herbert Spencer, and taken to task for failing to develop knowledge of the irrational origins of morality and for threatening to reduce humanity to sand or bland mediocrity. In contrast to HH, where the conquest of the passions is advocated along with a new Stoicism, in D there is now heralded the passion of knowledge itself. Nietzsche wants us to delight in the restlessness of the quest for knowledge and in the same way that the lover delights in his unrequited love: we seek knowledge in spite of the fact that it brings suffering with it and it is this that makes it a passion (p. 91). The author notes how the theme of “the plowshare”—the original title of both HH and D—is put to work in the book, with the image denoting the theme of “universal benefaction” that lies at the heart of it (p. 57). Nietzsche thinks that his taking to task of morality will have fruitful consequences for both the good human being and the evil human being, for both the humble and the mighty. Although Nietzsche continues to espouse the unaccountability of human actions, as he had done in HH, in D the denial of freedom of the will is done not on the basis of the inevitably egoistic character of human action, but rather on the basis of our ultimate ignorance of ourselves, including the deepest wellspring of our actions. Altruism is similarly denied in the text, not simply on the basis that all actions are egoistic, but rather on account of the complicated mechanism of our drives that makes the distinction between egoistic and altruistic actions nonsensical. The Gay Science is seen as the mature work in the trilogy in which Nietzsche reflects deeply on the nature and meaning of science and the possibility of making knowledge a life-enhancing power. Franco’s focus in particular is on the complex and enigmatic task of “incorporating” knowledge. Incorporation is taken to refer to the process by which something is rendered serviceable for life, ultimately contributing to its preservation and enhancement, as well as the cathexis that harnesses knowledge to affects, drives, and impulses (though it is also a task of gaining a critical distance from them). Art, which had been demoted in significance in HH (Nietzsche even evinces his own thesis on the end of art), is now subject to a new appreciation as it exists to prevent science from becoming mired in morality and asceticism. The Gay Science is interesting and important because an appreciation of it deepens our understanding not only of the break that occurs between the two phases of Nietzsche’s intellectual development, middle and late, but equally of the considerations that inspired him to move from one phase into the next and thus of the deep continuities between them. According to the author, the idea of eternal recurrence goes beyond the horizon of the free spirit and its quest for knowledge and that are the focus of the book; but, as the penultimate aphorism of the book it announces the next step in Nietzsche’s evolution, namely, the teaching of Zarathustra.

In the final chapter Franco attempts a “synoptic analysis” (p. xii) of Nietzsche’s final period of writings in an effort to ascertain what changes in his outlook and why. His view is that the skeptical, rationalistic philosophy Nietzsche adopts in his middle period does not get abandoned and the commitment to reason, intellectual honesty, and science, remains vital to the mature philosophy. What increasingly becomes of concern, according to Franco, is the asceticism of the free spirit ideal and the implication of the search for knowledge in the ascetic ideal. There is not, then, in the later works, and as commentators such as Abbey have argued, a “dogmatic hardening or narrowing” of Nietzsche’s philosophical outlook (p. xii). For Franco if we approach the later works from the vantage point afforded by the middle ones it becomes possible to dissolve the popular image of the post-Zarathustra Nietzsche as an essentially irrationalist thinker. In a bold move Franco suggests that the figure of the Übermensch completes the free spirit ideal: although the free spirit is adept at stripping away consoling illusions, exploring new possibilities of existence, and experimenting with ideas, s/he does not provide new goals or fashion new values, let alone assume the role of the commander. The Übermensch is necessary for these things and thus, far from being an “arbitrary excrescence” on Nietzsche’s part, is a logical outgrowth of his new Enlightenment project (p. 169).

The author attempts to treat each text of the middle period as a coherent whole and not merely as a collection of loosely-connected monadic aphorisms. He thus holds that the texts exist as “integral wholes” and not as collections of isolated fragments, and here he does indeed make an excellent job in interpreting the main themes and tropes of the middle period texts, showing in clear and succinct terms what holds them together and how even seemingly chaotic texts such as Dawn and The Gay Science exist as harmonious wholes. He sees the task of Nietzsche’s interpreter as one of bringing out the underlying unity in each of the parts of the books in question, as well as each book as a whole. Here Franco sees himself as working against the tendencies of the so-called French deconstructionist school, which, according to him, celebrates the lack of inherent meaning in Nietzsche’s texts and the boundless play of perspectives, even to the point of interpretive nihilism. Here he lumps together the disparate likes of Eric Blondel, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Sarah Kofman. However, this is to overlook the extent to which a figure like Deleuze presented in his Nietzsche et la philosophie (1962) Nietzsche as a highly rigorous and systematic thinker, one who even discovers anew the notion of essence. Franco is surely right, though, when he stresses that the free spirit trilogy is not as unified or univocal as Nietzsche himself suggested simply because his thinking undergoes real and significant development during the course of the middle period. For Franco, though, it is during this period that Nietzsche becomes Nietzsche.

The book has numerous strengths. It offers a highly lucid and incisive engagement with the middle period Nietzsche and genuinely illuminates the texts of this period. Franco has read these graceful texts carefully and diligently and he advances his claims and insights about them in a measured and thoughtful manner. He is also familiar with the Nachlass of the period and relies on this judiciously to back up certain key insights. He advances several key and helpful insights, such as the claim that although a naturalist Nietzsche shows a much more profound sense of historicity than the naturalism we find in writers such as Darwin and his Darwinian friend Rée; and that the new element introduced into Dawn is the critical attitude it assumes towards the morality of Mitleid and social adaptation as exemplified by Spencer. It is on account of its far-reaching critical insights into modern philanthropy that Dawn represents the inaugural moment of Nietzsche’s campaign against morality, a campaign that anticipates, Franco astutely notes, the later critique of herd morality and the last human being. However, the book has some weaknesses to it. Apart from the odd helpful insight, such as how Nietzsche’s enlightenment commitments are different from those associated with positivism, the book never explores the different Enlightenment traditions, ancient and modern, Nietzsche allies himself with in this period, and neither does it examine in any detail his relation to key Enlightenment figures, whether it be Epicurus as an ancient figure or Kant as a modern figure. This is something of a missed opportunity, especially given the ambition signaled in the title of the book. It is clear that in English-speaking literature we seriously lack an appreciation of Nietzsche’s relation to the modern Enlightenment, including both main figures such as Kant and minor figures such as Herder. Having made this criticism, let me stress the extent to which this is a most welcome addition to our appreciation of Nietzsche and an important and helpful study of the middle period.