Holden Battles the Summer Doldrums: Post One - Ecce Homo and Nietzsche's Last Laugh

Once upon a time, I picked up a secondhand anthology containing some of Friedrich Nietzsche's works, and I resolved to read them all in a summer. I had just declared my philosophy major and was ready to take a dive. It wasn't a disaster, but it wasn't great; I simply lacked experience. Nonetheless, I felt I gained a moderate, but unrefined, understanding of some of Nietzsche's work.

Except for Ecce Homo. I was totally unprepared for this book. Ostensibly, Ecce Homo is Nietzsche's autobiography, but it's unlike any other autobiography. At first glance, Nietzsche oscillates between braggadocious exclamations and perplexing dietary prescriptions. Even further, he seemingly contradicts himself at every turn, one moment lauding himself for his strength and will, and in another bemoaning his decadence. This book has befuddled many people much more intelligent than I, leading many scholars to dismiss as the mad paroxysms of a dying man.

The only reason I picked this book up again is because one of my (former) professors has argued for reading Ecce Homo as a satirical work. Nietzsche's Last Laugh: Ecce Homo as Satire by Nicholas D. More is a lucid and enlightening study. Even with my very humble Nietzschean know-how I felt like I had guide through the labyrinth. More convincingly argues that Nietzsche's final publication is an entry in the ancient tradition of satire. Not only that, but as a genre-blending work of philosophy it unites Nietzsche's corpus, following the threads he developed from his first publication to his last. Indeed, one of the standout qualities of More's work is the reconstruction of Nietzsche's purpose in reviewing his previous works in a singular way throughout Ecce Homo (Nietzsche devotes lengthy sections to each of his previous works.) So, not only is More's book a good resource for putting oneself in conversation with a Nietzschean expert, it's also a helpful survey of Nietzsche's entire oeuvre for people with, at bottom, a moderate, but unrefined, understanding of Nietzsche (like me).

I would read a section of Ecce Homo and follow it up by More's analysis of that section in Nietzsche's Last Laugh. This gave me the opportunity to formulate my own thoughts, ideas, and understandings of the work before turning to another interpretation. I heartily recommend approaching both works this way. Reading philosophy on my own is very enjoyable, but it's not as edifying as coming together with like-minded people to discusses a section of work twice a week. However, by triangulating my understanding of what I was reading between three different voices--my own, More's, and Nietzsche's-- I think I gained some simulacrum of edifying conversation. I actually developed this approach almost intuitively, which isn't a boast about my acumen or cleverness, but rather a testament to the skills I developed over the past four years in philosophy courses.

Indeed, reading these works together compelled me to reflect on the value of my liberal arts education in the humanities. I thought a lot about how people ask me--sometimes rudely and sometimes out of friendly curiosity--what I plan "to do" with my degree. Well, my plan is to join the professoriate, but a part of me hates offering this answer, because people often reply with, "Well, yeah, that makes sense. What else can you do with philosophy?" I cannot stress this enough: We do everything with philosophy. Truly, when one wakes up in the morning and decides what to wear, they are working with concepts about appropriate dress, personal taste, utility, current styles, and so on. Navigating, engineering, and playing with concepts is what philosophers do. A more career-oriented example would be... almost any job that requires someone to analyze information, written or otherwise, probe this information, and reconstruct it in a meaningful, clear way to someone else. This is what people, from within and without the humanities, do every single day. Many employers value applicants with degrees in the humanities, because those students learn how to think creatively, critically, and analytically in a way that other fields preclude by clinging to models: the intellectual equivalent of filling buckets with water, perhaps.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ecce Homo with assistance from Nietzsche's Last Laugh. The doldrums are already looming ahead of me, and this provided me with much needed intellectual stimulation, and it made me excited to continue my philosophical pursuits, in school and with my own reading.

If you've ever been slightly curious about philosophy, a philosopher, or something related, come on down to Weller Book Works, because many of us are more than happy to recommend books to you: classics, new releases, and even academic titles abound here. We're happy to help you on your intellectual journey.

This week I'm reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac and Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors. That blog post will be up next Wednesday (5/30). Let me know what you're reading this summer through any of Weller Book Works' social media. Until next week, happy reading!