log(book)
Cover of Twilight of the Idols.

Twilight of the Idols

author: Friedrich Nietzsche (1888)
date read: 2020-05-25
pages: 209
lists: german , nonfiction , philosophy
rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Nietzsche – in this book, he is equally malevolent spirit, joyfully brilliant shitposter, and asshole. The full title is Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer (Götzen-Dämmerung, oder, Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert). It’s a dense book – not in that it is complex, but that it is just stuffed with aphorisms and opinions.

First off, to get anything out of this book, you have to discount the intermittent assholery. Misogyny, racism, sweeping statements of dickishness: they’re part of Nietzsche’s shtick, and if you’re unwilling to put them aside, just give this book a pass. Then there is a fucking racist chapter endorsing eugenics and his whole übermensch thing. There’s also a whole chapter on the current (deplorable, of course) state of Germany that you can skip unless you’re into 19th century German history.

That said, the parts that are brilliant shitposting (and some actually useful thoughts) were extremely enjoyable. Low-effort shitposting:

High-effort:

Interesting bigger talking points:

Intellectualism sucks

He’s thoroughly annoyed with Plato and cerebral philosophy. Inquiring about ideal worlds and abstract values first instead of coming from lived experience is something he describes as disease and decadence (his favourite insults). He claims Athens was already faltering when Socrates came about (he’s not wrong there), and the escape into intellectualism was a last ditch effort to heal the “wounds of decadence” – but partly a poison, especially for millennia down the road.

People dismissing the real, felt reality because it’s changeable, and dreaming up an ideal one earns pages of scorn, that are very entertaining to read. It boils down to “Have you nitwits considered that maybe THE WORLD IS ACTUALLY CHANGEABLE AND YOUR SENSES ARE RIGHT jfc”.

Morality

Morality is a special case of this intellectualism: morality that goes against instincts is sterile and bad for you and he’s really upset about it. Tbh, living in the 1800s, there was a lot of cause to be upset, what with the church having its fingers everywhere.

He diagnoses that morality and religion confuse cause and effect, and try to explain us that if we hurt, we must deserve it (he literally quotes Schopenhauer on this – I knew he was a miserable dick, but I didn’t know how bad it was.) The only use of morality he accepts is as a language to communicate individual and group states – but only symbolically, and only useful to those who are already part of the in-group.

By extension, he also rails against “free will”, which (he says) is only used to declare people responsible for things, so that we can judge and punish them. “sin and guilt are fake don’t @ me” basically.

Altruism

If you thought Friedrich hated morality, wait until you hear him talk about altruism, the morality that cripples self-interest and is bad/evil/degenerate/decadent (told you these were his favourite words). If you put others above yourself, you’ve already lost, either because you lack the will, or because you don’t even know what it is you want.

Conflict is great

He says: Love and enmity both are strong, real emotions, and keep people alive. Enemies are wonderful – they keep you alive and young. “You are prolific only at the cost of being rich in contradictions; you only stay young under the condition that your soul does not dilute itself, does not covet peace.

You can still be at peace/enlightened/whatever you’d like to call it – and often the feeling of being at peace is only something else that you misinterpret or won’t name honestly. It could be a gentle vibe, or feeling sated, or lazy, or experiencing emerging certainty after long uncertainty, or expression of maturity and mastery, “Or the beginning of weariness, the first shadow of evening, of any kind of evening. Or a sign that the air is humid, that south winds are approaching. Or unrecognized gratitude for a good digestion (sometimes called love of man)” – love the (literal) shitposting.

Education

Okay, I said you could skip the part on the terrible current state of Germany, but his take on education is actually alright. He argues that you need three major skills (which of course are not taught in the decadent terrible modern institutions etc etc):

  1. Learn to see, that is: to calmly examine things, to suspend judgement, to resist first impulses. Positive side effect: you’ll let new things approach with healthy scepticism instead of throwing yourself into everything immediately.
  2. Learn to think. Thinking needs technique, and being intent on mastery. It’s nuanced and elegant and a lot of work. It’s dancing: which needs a lot of practice and technique and work, and also inspired elegance.
  3. Learn to speak and write

Fallacies

He spends some time in calling out the fallacy of getting cause and effect mixed up, or just assuming a cause when there is no reason to really think there is one: for instance, people assume that their actions are caused by their will, and thoughts are caused by their Self. But nah, he says: your will doesn’t really change anything, he just accompanies things already in motion, just like motivation is just a surface-level reflection. Screw all that empirical nonsense. It only comes about because having an explanation is comforting, and we’re terrible at sitting with the discomfort of the uncertainty of the unknown. You ask “Why” because you’re scared and anxious, and then you choose something familiar as answer, and feel better (“The banker immediately thinks of business, the Christian of sin, and the girl of her love.”).

Life and death, decline and fall

As you may have gathered, he spends a lot of time lamenting the general decline of society. His big complaint is that there is weakness everywhere: The strength of old gets diluted more and more, and terrors like democracy come along and make it worse. Democracy means putting down strength, pulling everybody down (or up) to some kind of mediocre level. It can only happen if you resist instincts and true, strong will, if you decry authority as slavery.

He makes his case using marriage: Marriage used to be an institution, he says. It had weight and meaning. The meaning derived this weight from its indissolubility, from the total responsibility of the husband, from the natural drive towards sex and property (wife and children being the property), from the responsibility of the families to make a match. All of this goes away if you instead have a marriage between equals that can be dissolved. The institution loses its foundation, and in consequence loses weight and meaning. (His analysis is not wrong, but his value judgement very much is.)

There’s also a prescient commentary on revolution: Giving the working classes the right to vote or even acknowledging them as worth discussing has given European working classes asprations that won’t be reigned in. “The worker was qualified for military service, granted the right to organize and to vote: is it any wonder that the worker today experiences his own existence as distressing — morally speaking, as an injustice? […] If one wants an end, one must also want the means: if one wants slaves, then one is a fool if one educates them to be masters.”. And again: spot-on analysis, spot-ty judgement.

He also makes a big case for assisted suicide that pretty much follows the arguments still in use today. There’s a lot of anger at Christianity for attaching morality to suicide, and to fostering a world in which death is late and drawn out.

Conclusion

Some parts of Nietzsche’s principles I’m dismissing without much second thought: His obviously terrible racism and misogyny, but also his fundamental assumption of general degeneration and decline, that stem from an impressive arrogance.

Some parts I dislike, but think there are uncomfortable and unfashionable truths in them. He gets hung up on strength vs weakness and the inequality of people a lot, and I think there is something to be learnt here. In some parts, I completely agree with his analysis, and then where he violently opposes the things he sees (as in the case of marriage), I’d like to say “and it’s GOOD that way!”.

And some parts, like him talking about inspiration (I cut that because this summary was too long already) or about enemies and conflict, was genuinely good and useful. I enjoyed reading this book a lot, and it inspired a bunch of thoughts, that you might see soon-ish on my ramble blog. If you want to read it yourself, there’s an English version here.

I read this book because it was mentioned in the Meaningness bibliography.