If Nietzsche were alive today…


Patrick West’s new book casts a searching, Nietzschean eye over the present.

Friedrich Nietzsche is an ambiguous figure today. Fragments of this infamous philosopher are all around us. He invented the word ‘superman’; his pronouncements on the nature of good and evil, on self-empowerment and overcoming through struggle, are echoed throughout popular culture, from Harry Potter to Kanye West; and an entire self-help industry, enthusing about the ‘gift of failure’ and churning out books with titles like Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, is heavily indebted to Nietzsche.

Yet when named directly, Nietzsche remains controversial. He is accused by some of being a proto-Nazi, and he is considered by others to be responsible for two world wars. While those claims are overblown, there is little doubt that Nietzsche’s fierce criticism of an emerging mass, dremocratic society put him firmly on the side of anti-democracy. So surely Nietzsche, for all his influence on our intellectual and cultural development, is a thinker best understood in his context, rather than someone whose ideas we would wish to revive today?

Perhaps not. In his new book, Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times, Patrick West, a columnist for spiked, rejects the idea of contextualising Nietzsche in order to explain away the less palatable aspects of his thought. In fact, West is not really interested in judging Nietzsche. Quite the opposite; he asks Nietzsche to judge us. And it is an incredibly rewarding move, because while Nietzsche’s thought offers few concrete solutions, it does offer a tonic against all manner of contemporary social ills.

Take identity politics and all its attendant narcissism and navel-gazing. Nietzsche attacked this kind of thinking at its root, firmly rejecting any suggestion that national, cultural, racial, religious, gender or sexual identities should be recognised, let alone respected. For Nietzsche, West argues, labels imprison us. ‘Life is concerned with forever becoming, for striving to go beyond oneself’, writes Nietzsche. Indeed, his philosophy of the superman, outlined in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, concerns the individual who goes beyond himself: ‘Man is something that should be overcome’, says the titular Zarathustra. ‘What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.’ There could be no sincere true self to whom one’s identity must be true, for a fixed, true self does not exist. Introspection is the enemy of achievement: ‘Acknowledge yourself through action, not observation.’ Nietzsche would urge us not to be true to ourselves, but to rebel against ourselves.

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