Great Ideas Collection: Nietzsche

In the eleventh of our series exploring the books of Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham reviews Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘Why I Am So Wise’.

Although this Great Ideas book is entitled Why I am so Wise, the title of the original work is actually Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One is. Written in 1888 (published in 1908) Friedrich Nietzsche’s last original book, before his final years of insanity, is, simply, an exercise in narcissism. Apparently, he could ‘write a long Latin essay in a single night’s sitting’.

Ecce Homo is Nietzsche’s interpretation of his development and success, and is an attempt to defend himself, “Listen to me! For I am thus and thus. Do not, above all, confound me with what I am not.”

In order to discuss how he became so great, the book is broken down into four sections: Why I am so Wise, Why I am so Clever, Why I Write Such Good Books, and Why I am a Destiny. Each considers aspects of life that have influenced the person he is: “One would have to go back centuries to find this noblest of races that the earth has ever possessed in so instinctively pristine a degree as I present it.”

He discusses how everything can have an effect on one’s personality; food, religion, climate, recreational pursuits and friends:

I shall be asked why I have really narrated all these little things which according to the traditional judgement are matters of indifference… answer: these little things – nutriment, place, climate, recreation, the whole casuistry of selfishness – are beyond all conception of greater importance than anything.

All of these seemingly small things and little habits have a greater effect on us than we may realise. Nietzsche himself states that “our largest expenditures are our most frequent small ones.”

As an example of how these little things created someone as smart as himself, Nietzsche discusses his work Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a philosophical novel that sees the main character Zarathustra turn traditional morality on its head. A character obviously based on Nietzsche himself, he boasts that “what defines me, what sets me apart from all the rest of mankind, is that I have unmasked Christian morality.” Later he claims that “he who exposes it is a force majeure, a destiny.”

It is rather surprising that Nietzsche thinks so fondly of himself, when he makes it obvious that his work was not greatly received, and that most people disliked or did not understand his writings. Most writers would feel disheartened or rejected if their work was disliked, but not Nietzsche.

His ego instead seems to become more inflated, stating how his time “has not yet come, some are born posthumously”. He takes pride in the fact he is disliked, boasting how he is by far “the most terrible human being there has ever been” simply because he speaks of a truth that is dreadful.

I know my fate. One day there will be associated with my name the recollection of something frightful – of a crisis like no other before on earth, of the profoundest collision of conscience, of a decision evoked against everything that until then had been believed in, demanded, sanctified.

I am not a man, I am dynamite.


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