Robert C. Solomon, Living with Nietzsche. What the Great "Immoralist" has to Teach Us
New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. 194 pp. + bibliography and index, paperback US$19.95
Reviewed by Peter Murray
Robert Solomon's new book is an unashamedly personal interpretation of Nietzsche's relevance to contemporary thought, especially in relation to affirmative virtue ethics. In response to the book's central question &mdash 'What would Nietzsche make of us?' &mdash the answer is 'Not much,' unless we were prepared to stand up to him with a philosophy based in a deeply personal world-view (30). Solomon is tough on Nietzsche and in the first chapter finds the will to power exaggerated, eternal recurrence embarrassing (20), and later finds the revaluation of all values to be pretentious and absurd (141). He launches an ad hominem attack that Nietzsche probably would have sanctioned, but despite the assault, Solomon continually says he loves Nietzsche. We might wonder how he could live with someone who is elitist, strident, and verging on hysterical &mdash but perhaps the hyperbole is a cry for help brought on by the thought of another year's students, overenthusiastic about ecstasy and excess, and with the question 'Is it god or demon?' always present in their eager faces.
Solomon shows that the interweaving of philosophy and psychology is central to Nietzsche's appeal and the basis of a major issue in the first chapter concerning the relative value of perspectives (41). If the presentation of a perspective is always distorted by the expression of the psychology of the presenter, what is the basis for any evaluation? Solomon does not accept that all perspectives are of equal value, despite all of them being human. He cites context and purpose as distinguishing features (38) as well as education, sensitivity and insight (41). On this basis he also rejects the notion of infinite perspectives &mdash despite its importance for Nietzsche's notion of eternity as a reconfiguration of the experience of the sublime &mdash as being the basis for a form of relativism and the notion of 'undecidability' (41).
The second chapter introduces Nietzsche's moral perspectivism. Solomon places Nietzsche within the history of secular ethicists, as one who criticizes earlier ethical systems as forms of slave morality, defined in terms of resentment and a lack of cultivation. Importantly, Solomon warns of an association with the politically or socially deprived, or the association of nobility with an actual aristocratic power elite or with our own sense of narcissism (45). Slave morality relies on moral laws used in a reactive attempt to gain power through a notion of human essence, even if this comes from the lawmakers of a culture. The basis of noble morality in individual character rather than essence, and the importance of motive and emotion rather than obedience, is found to highlight plurality in moral decision-making as the basis for a virtue ethics (53). Despite the emphasis on the uniqueness of each individual's experiences without an underlying sameness, Solomon argues that his interpretation avoids relativism through being coupled with Nietzsche's notion that good character requires a strong sense of the importance of social relations (60). I agree with Solomon and suggest that, despite the critics who accuse him of ignoring others, Nietzsche requires that the development of a workable morality involves an open engagement with others beyond dominatory will to power, based on the realization that cooperation achieves the greatest levels of power. On this basis, the moral development requires seeking the highest articulate resistance to one's own will to power.
Chapter Three deals with Nietzsche's notion of the passions and their importance for human existence. The passions occur with a broad conception of rationality and it is emphasized that divorcing thinking from the passions is not possible for Nietzsche, who is found to advocate a passionate life especially concerned with intoxication (Rausch), the particularly Dionysian passion (89). Its high value is found to be associated with a Nietzschean naturalism that is fundamental to human being. At a basic level, passions are found to be universal to animal life, while in humanity they can be cultivated into virtues, providing a basis for ethics in naturalism considered in terms of physiology (73). Such an ethics, based on will to power considered as the basic passion, is found to provide a good alternative to theories based on pleasure or the avoidance of pain. Will to power is not considered as a drive in humans but as something more like a desire to communicate, expressed in various passions which apparently can be cultivated and become more unique (80). This raises a basic question concerning spiritualization: What happens to the original 'animal' passions during their spiritualization? It appears that the bodily passions must always be accompanied by an interpretive double with the latter subject to spiritualization, which includes developing a broader perspective of the former.
Such issues are explored in Chapter Four where resentment, love and pity are considered as varieties of passions (89). For Solomon, resentment is a clear case of acting against another out of a sense of inferiority (90). However, it should be said that resentment is also based on a sense of overriding equality founded on a metaphysical conception of human being. The other is criticized for refusing to acknowledge this equality, and in a further step this refusal becomes the basis for retribution and the self's redemption. Solomon accepts the role of self-righteousness in resentment (90), but also finds some good in its motivational power. Given that disinterestedness is not possible there does appear to be some reason to respect the products of resentment, as Nietzsche does, however, there also appears to be good reason for caution. If the relationship to the superiority of the other provides the impetus to create, then the perception of superiority is a good thing, but does this involve resentment? It seems that a sense of moral superiority is essential for resentment (93), as well as a genuine hatred of the more powerful other. In relation to love, Nietzsche is shown to advocate a spiritualized form of love that occurs as an ecstatic creative force as well as a heightened sense of communality which Solomon likens to Sartrean 'Being with Others' (95). Pity is rejected as being self-serving rather than as a response to the universality of suffering. This complies with Nietzsche's treatment of pity which suggests that charitable acts generally satisfy a selfish motive, converting the self's displeasure into pleasure. Towards the end of the chapter, Solomon returns to resentment, finding it to be different from spite and to be 'ruthlessly clever' and the province of critics, moralists revolutionaries and presumably reviewers (102). There is little doubt that resentment has practical results, but the case seems to be stated in order to provoke. Nietzsche's treatment of Paul would certainly not fit with Solomon's notion of a clever attempt to balance a power differential, and there is no necessity that power differences lead to the vicious resentment that Nietzsche considers to have infected the morality of his time. Finally, the point is made that Nietzsche's sense of justice, based in mercy and forgiveness, is not typical (114). Solomon maintains that justice is reactive (115), an argument that could be used about some forms of philosophy generally, but this would deny Nietzsche's basic notion of affirmative creativity. The increasing breadth of reflection on ethics will always be accompanied by an expanded theorization of justice which is necessarily interpretive and fictional, and thus unjust, but not necessarily resentful.
Chapter Five is concerned with Nietzsche's affirmative ethics. It is basically an attempt to situate Nietzsche within the tradition and to distinguish him from his nihilistic tag. In this, Solomon disagrees with such writers as Macintyre while agreeing with the analysis of the demise of 'absolute' ethics (120). Comparing Nietzsche to Aristotle and Kant, Solomon accepts the validity of the rejection of the latter in favour of an ethics somewhat loosely based on that of the former. Solomon finds Kant's notion of autonomy not followed in Nietzsche's view of ethical practice, being replaced by a form of energetic self-indulgence that hardly seems a basis for ethics (127f.). An appeal is made to nobility as a basis for virtue and thus ethics, but the elitism of such a notion has its problems without any foundation in the Good. A basis is provided with the notion of a 'good person' whose actions are acceptable and agreeable in the context of a particular culture (125). Nietzsche is shown to advocate a morality for a warrior culture that no longer exists, and with its pinnacles replaced by the faceless mass. He rejects only absolute morality, and idealizes a certain type, replete with sophistication, an artist-philosopher, untimely perhaps, but a beacon not warning of shipwreck but of the possibilities for human being.
In Chapter Six, Solomon proceeds to describe the virtues as traits, or states of character that are admirable or good (140). They are individuating, creating a style and, for Solomon, originate in a unique self and can be freely developed albeit with hard work and discipline (140). He suggests that, despite Nietzsche's rhetoric, virtues cannot be new and are reconfigured in each person without becoming unrecognizable (141). After discussing a number of Aristotlean virtues, Solomon refers to two lists supplied by Nietzsche that provide us with honesty, courage (twice), generosity, politeness, insight, sympathy (Mitgefühl), and solitude (145). His own list, derived from Nietzsche is: exuberance, style, depth, risk-taking, fatalism, aestheticism, playfulness, and solitude (159). These are discussed at length along with a list of the 'crypto-virtues' of health, strength, hardness, egoism and responsibility, which Solomon rightly suggests provokes the question of what a value actually is &mdash a question which he does not intend to answer (167). Solomon does not present a meta-theory of virtue, but does suggest that a virtue is a highly value-enhancing trait (140) that exhibits the Dionysian affect of overflowing (149, 158), in relation to which he interprets a number of virtues, suggesting that overflowing is the precondition for a Nietzschean virtue ethics. Solomon's notion of overflowing is certainly how Nietzsche describes the capacity to experience Dionysus or the Dionysian &mdash for example, the feeling of 'humaneness' (GS 337) &mdash and the basis of an ethics in the enhancement of the gift-giving virtue, considered as the feeling of value enhancement occurring in relation to others, is the central issue in Zarathustra.
In the final chapter, the issue of reconciling free will, fatalism and responsibility raises many important issues, despite a distracting attempt to justify Nietzsche's thought as existentialist. Solomon argues for a narrow conception of responsibility (compared to that expressed in GS 337), and focuses on taking personal responsibility for the self-development of one's virtues. This capacity is seen as a 'meta-virtue' (189) that encourages the development of the virtues, but seemingly in a different way to overflowing, and despite Solomon's protests against metaphysical meddling, seems to underlie responsibility. There is an element of agency in responsibility that can be emphasized or neglected by the self, within an overall fatality made up of character and culture that cannot be overcome, but which, for Solomon, can be 'got over' (189) in a sense that seems to betray a residual belief in radical freedom. Solomon uses many interesting examples throughout the book, but perhaps the most challenging occurs in this chapter where he discusses Nietzsche's notion of eternal return (201). Solomon reiterates the 'existential imperative' interpretation, which I agree gives a strong sense of acting for the future to the thought of eternal recurrence and which provides some persuasion to behave more virtuously on the basis of past failures or misapprehensions. This interpretation ultimately allows Solomon to reject eternal recurrence as being too soft (206). However, and perhaps this is the failure of an existentialist interpretation, it is clear that Nietzsche associated the eternal recurrence with a capacity to affirm past events on a personal and interpersonal scale which gives some weight to our desires for the future. Solomon's separation of eternal recurrence from amor fati (204) does not avoid the question of whether Nietzsche is asking us to affirm past horrific events as the basis of an ethics. The simple answer is 'Yes,' Nietzsche does envisage this extent of affirmation, a position that is hardly one found to be 'not demanding enough' (206). There is little doubt that the term amor fati is used in the personal sense that Solomon suggests, however, Nietzsche's similar language in relation to eternal recurrence suggests that a similar thought process is aimed at an extremely expanded conception of life which is specifically focused on the suffering of others for its existential impact. Furthermore, I suggest that the Nietzschean notion of Dionysian overflowing assumes this degree of affirmation of the past throughout Nietzsche's work, raising the question of its suitability as Solomon's meta-virtue and a basis for ethics. God or demon? Far from inspiring a love of fate, this thought of eternity could provoke the 'it was', rendering responsibility useless. However, this further separation of the self from others casts their vulnerability into a chilling sublimity in which violence exceeds our capacity to think it. Still, the limits of these interpretations are communicated by the infinite and infinitesimal temporal continuity of the other person, who in chastising our betrayal, provides the goal for our overflowing generosity - the work for the other, and for all others, in a future which exceeds our finitude.