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Carlo Gentili, Nietzsches Kulturkritik zwischen Philologie und Philosophie

Basel: Schwabe, 2010. 334pp. ISBN 978-3-7965-2436-3 €56

Reviewed by Jorge Luiz Viesenteiner


Carlo Gentili’s book, first published in Italian in 2001 (Nietzsche, Il Mulino), covers Nietzsche’s entire philosophical production. It may be characterized as an introductory book, for some fundamental issues in Nietzsche’s philosophy are explained in detail. But Gentili also discusses these issues from a very particular perspective—namely, the criticism of culture elaborated from philological and philosophical perspectives. The book’s five chapters are structured as follows.

The first chapter treats the close relation between philosophy and philology, focusing on Nietzsche’s special interest in the latter, as well as on the role that philology played throughout the 60s and 70s in German culture (11). Gentili’s claim regarding the link between philology and philosophy is that, for Nietzsche, “each and every philological activity should be surrounded and enclosed by a philosophical world view” (30; translations from Gentili’s book are my own). For, from The Birth of Tragedy to The Antichrist, Nietzsche had always taken an interest in philology, constantly articulated with the criticism of culture and the educational system, and from the classical perspectives that he derived from his schooling at Pforta and from debates over German national identity of the time. The central concept here is that of Bildung, under the influences of such figures as Wilhelm von Humboldt, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Friedrich Schiller, and the meaning that the notion had gradually acquired in combining concerns for German identity with the Greek emphasis on philology, poetry, philosophy, and so on. Although he focuses on texts prior to The Birth of Tragedy, Gentili also emphasizes how some themes found in them—such as the epic poem, “Ermanaric’s Death” (33), and the “redemption from the past” (39)—also unfold in Nietzsche’s late reflections.

The second chapter considers how, in pursuing his criticism of culture from The Birth of Tragedy to the Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche’s critical axis shifts from philology to philosophy. The chapter has a double structure. On the one hand, there is a critical genealogy of the figure of Dionysus, with which Gentili indicates the sources that influenced Nietzsche—for instance, Karl Otfried Müller, Jacob Bernays, and Paul Yorck von Wartenburg (46-51)—along with the ways the figure is employed in Nietzsche’s writings and its critical meaning. On the other hand, Gentili underlines the criticism of culture from the perspective of “untimeliness [Unzeitgemäßheit],” defined in the foreword to the second Untimely in terms of “classical philology in our time” as the requirement “to act—against time and thus on the time and hopefully in favor of a coming time” (KSA 1, p. 247). This notion of untimeliness is articulated in the light of the figure of the “genius.” Following Humboldt’s model, Nietzsche claims that a genuine culture is capable of a “unity of artistic style in all expressions of life of a people” (KSA 1, p. 274; Gentili, p. 81). It is in this context that Gentili places Nietzsche’s attack on David Strauss, the “Bildungsphilisterei” and the “historical illness.” But Gentili also highlights the importance of a culture that was facing its “Restoration,” insofar as it could produce the genius, see history as an instrument for criticism and face the contemporary issues that Nietzsche had before him (cf. p. 102)—a background issue of the third Untimely and the Mahnruf an die Deutschen pamphlet. Gentili’s digression relating “style” and “great style” clearly explains the close connection that he sees between Nietzsche’s early writings and later works.

In the third chapter, Gentili focuses on the idea of Nietzsche as an “Aufklärer,” whose supposed “turn” would inaugurate a “new phase of his thought” (123) with Human, All Too Human. Gentili focuses on two issues here: the function of science and the extent of Nietzsche’s criticism of morality. In an intensive dialogue with important treatments of the first issue, like Eugen Fink’s, Gentili argues that Nietzsche’s enlightened reconsideration of his earlier positions is less a “reversal” than an “development” (124), insofar as Nietzsche makes an enlightened use of science to show that metaphysics and religion are mistakes, anticipating Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. In this respect, the influence that scientific works had on Nietzsche—especially in 1873, but even earlier with Lange—does not necessarily involve a “turn,” but rather “continuity” (p. 143), such that his philosophic and aesthetic-philological interests ran parallel to science (p. 145). This engagement with science also prepares the ground for Nietzsche’s attack on morality and for the intensification of his criticism of culture, whose ultimate form is expressed in Human, All Too Human, although Gentili insists that this does not mean that this text represents a “radical turn” (155). The chapter concludes with Gentili’s reflections on the shift from a negative phase to a constructive philosophy with Dawn and The Gay Science (173).

The fourth chapter, the most dense, complex and refined of the book, considers Nietzsche’s opposition to Christianity. The basis of this opposition is what Gentili calls “the mythologizing of theology”—that is, the transformation Nietzsche makes in theology by bestowing on God a “history,” to be understood both in the ordinary sense and in the sense of a “narrative.” This approach (187) is inspired by Hans Blummenberg’s text, “Wirklichkeitsbegriff und Wirkungspotential des Mythos” (in Manfred Furhmann, ed., Terror und Spiel, München: Fink, 1971), whose conclusion reveals a paradox: “God as a premise of the history of man proves to be an all-too-human hypothesis that betrays its own origin, namely, that man is the premise of this premise” (192). The “freedom of mythologists” (196) is employed in Nietzsche’s “criticism of divinity,” Gentili claims, in order to set up the conditions for, among other things, the announcement of the “Overman,” a drastic humanizing process that follows the same “founding event of the incarnation of the Christian God,” the same “grounding myth” of Christianity (188). Gentili’s analysis of the famous words “God is dead!” in The Gay Science 125 also employs this notion of the “freedom of mythologists,” and provides the theoretical support for him to relate Christianity, metaphysics and nihilism. If nihilism is no “rupture,” but belongs to the Western tradition as its logic, so that “the Western tradition and nihilism are […] synonymous,” Christianity is “only the final stage of morality, its completion, the moment in which morality turns against itself” and nihilism and Christianity “inevitably end up falling […] into one” (204). The “death of God” also expresses the self-suppression of “truthfulness.” In discussing these connections, between Christianity, metaphysics and nihilism, Gentili also engages closely with Heidegger’s interpretation, as well as with Hegel’s.

These theoretical conditions provide the background for Gentili’s study of Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “the fifth ‘Evangelium’,” an analysis that indicates “a final abandonment of [Nietzsche’s] philological past.” Gentili understands the book in its poetic form and as the “completion of Nietzsche’s anti-Christianity” (223), whose claim prepares the announcement of the “Overman.” Concerned with distancing the concept of “Overman” from any political slogan, Gentili dialogues with Heidegger and Karl Löwith, and relates the concept to the “three metamorphoses,” in order to argue that the child’s innocence represents “the completion of Overman through the eternal return of the same” (238), a concept derived from Zarathustra’s dialogues, “The Vision and the Riddle” and “The Convalescent”.

The fourth chapter concludes with Gentili’s consideration of the “aesthetic justification of the world”—with which man is considered an artist, such that metaphysics, morality, religion, and science are “art products”—and the opposition between Jesus and Paul. Paul was the first to confer a “historical reality” on Christianity, as well as to popularize it, but he was also the first “interpreter Christi” to misrepresent the figure of Jesus, such as to convert his own doctrine into a “Christianity for the people.” For Gentili, like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “idiot,” Jesus is an “anti-Christian” figure, conveying much more a human “praxis of life” and an opposition to the abstract truths of theology. Paradoxically, then, in relation to Paul’s doctrine, Jesus would be the first Antichrist (262) and have no connection with Christianity whatsoever.

The final chapter begins with Nietzsche’s longing for “self-interpretation”—a longing already felt in the 1886 introductions, and which culminated in the publishing of Ecce homo (267)—and arrives at the debate over the collection titled The Will to Power. By emphasizing the “posthumous” nature of Nietzsche’s work—a self-portrait that relates well to the concept of Unzeitgemäßheit—Gentili emphasizes Nietzsche’s awareness of the incomprehensibility of his philosophy, including his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the book that Gentili considers the “high point” of Nietzsche’s philosophy (270). The relation between the attempt at self-interpretation and the supposed masterpiece, The Will to Power is introduced by Gentili through Ecce homo, for there, he claims, Nietzsche said nothing he had not already said five years earlier through Zarathustra’s mouth. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the “final overcoming of the all-too-human,” so that Beyond Good and Evil, On Genealogy of Morals, and Twilight of the Idols are tools for the interpretation of its content. In this respect, Zarathustra has the function of a “door” to the explanation of the philosophy contained in The Will to Power.

The chapter proceeds with the explanation of the concept of “will to power,” beginning with the history of Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche’s compilation and passing to the second “Nietzsche-Renaissance” (276) inaugurated by the Colli-Montinari edition. It concludes with an intensive dialogue with Heidegger, Löwith, Alfred Baeumler, and Karl Jaspers over whether Nietzsche was a metaphysician or systematic philosopher, and also over the political exploitation of the notion of “will to power.” With this Gentili concludes his discussion of the main question of the book, the criticism of culture, by considering one of Nietzsche’s last topics, “great politics,” in close relation with his “digression” about “great style” in the second chapter (297).

Gentili’s book thus provides an excellent account of Nietzsche’s most critical concepts, as well as a very accurate panorama of the reception of his work. Although he refrains from engaging extensively with more recent publications on the topics he discusses, probably owing to the introductory nature of the book, he presents the various influences on Nietzsche in a manner typical of the Italian tradition of Nietzsche scholarship, and he also introduces the canonical themes and interpretations of Nietzsche’s philosophy such as Heidegger’s, always using original sources and providing extensive reference to the German-language literature. Now that the book has been translated into German, it should certainly be translated into other languages as well.