I am convinced that Leo Sayer was channelling Nietzsche in 1974!

Leo Sayer in 1974. I say he was channelling Nietzsche! [Image via YouTube]

The Gay ScienceThe Gay Science by Friedrich Nietzsche
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This work is where most of Nietzsche's ideas begin. The poetry was unexpected, even though poetry is "the gay science". I routinely reflect on La Rochefoucauld's Maxims, and The Gay Science follows a similar structure. Based on my own reading, I also see elements of Voltaire's style. La Rochefoucauld's influence on Nietzsche has been acknowledged by numerous scholars, such as Brendan Donnellan, but also to Voltaire. 

Writing in the New Republic, Jacob Soll includes Nietzsche as an extension of Voltaire in terms of the critique of religion, which interestingly extends into a critique of socialism. (In the Marxian tradition, religion is the "opiate of the masses".) Borrowing from Mortimer Adler, my approach to reading Nietzsche is to read it myself, and later to look toward critiques of his work, so I am pleased that my connections between La Rochefoucauld and Voltaire do not stray from the mark. Nevertheless, my comparison was based purely on Voltaire's Dictionnaire philosophique and La Rochefoucauld's Maxims, rather than an in-depth study of either. 

In many ways, Nietzsche sets out the work as a dictionary of his ideas, not so much in the style of aphorisms, but certainly as a form of developing his own ideas in the style of a list of definitions, ideas, critiques, and polemics. Having said that, Nietzsche points out so many things that remain relevant today, including working for the sake of work, the "non-voluntariness in forming opinions" in academia, and even Rousseau's idea (apparently Nietzsche disliked Rousseau's work) of experience being "dearly bought and hardly worth the cost", nationalism, and the idea that science is not rational but merely a form of metaphysics where we attempt to measure things that are for the most part immeasurable, just to name a few. I also noticed echoes of Nietzsche in the work of Anton Chekhov and Albert Camus. 

But to return to Jacob Soll, who suggests that, in the US, the Enlightenment has been more or less abandoned, provides an interesting counter-point to what routinely appears in political debates in Australia. For example, the Enlightenment is often reified as the benchmark for all things good, yet, much like the US, there seems to be a disconnect with the great thinkers of the Enlightenment. (Soll, in effect, includes Nietzsche as an extension of the Enlightenment heavy-weights.) What this indicates to me is a weakness in my own understanding based on the glossed-over ideas of the Enlightenment that are too often taken-for-granted. I need to read much more and not just the philosophers, and Nietzsche points out Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer (that "pedantic Englishman") as worthy of further critique. 

Rather than suggesting we do what the social sciences try to do now by emulating the natural sciences, Nietzsche suggests we should, in effect, refer to the social sciences as "the unnatural sciences". Which brings me to an interesting observation. The Delphic Oracle's motto, "Know thyself" is based on the idea that knowledge (as Nietzsche suggests) is simply about attaching something we do not know to something we already know. So rather than seeking to understand, we seek to know. This subtle yet powerful difference seems to link to the Dionysian approach that Nietzsche develops in his later works. In many ways, it is also a critique of the natural sciences, especially Newton ("If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders [sic] of giants"). In the current era, everything must be measured or it is not valued (and to quote Galileo, "Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so" - see also the Canadian designer, Bruce Mau). 

Nietzsche provides one of the best critiques of these ideas, and in ways I would never have dreamt of in a lifetime of thinking. He also has his usual go at Aristotle, Socrates, the Stoics, yet seems to agree with Epicurus, and introduces Zarathustra, but I think I have only seen the tip of the iceberg. I intend to read Thus Spoke Zarathustra for my next Nietzsche reading, but I can only imagine how much I am missing as I have not the complete grasp (is it even possible?) of the many influences that Nietzsche draws on. 

It would seem logical that to read Nietzsche, one might begin at the beginning and work through in chronological order. Then again, I would have lost so much had I read this book early on, as many of Nietzsche's ideas remain largely undeveloped, at least in terms of how he converses with the reader. Interestingly, Nietzsche suggests that we only know something when we are able to discuss it. But this is simply the herd instinct monopolising our intellect. If we seek rather to understand than to "know", we may well not be able to communicate it at all. 

I think this is what Nietzsche captures best in this work, and I would hazard a guess that his poems pick up on this theme, and his epilogue (mirrored in the final poem) invites us to "dance". It doesn't matter if you do not understand the Minstrel, but the more you can hear the music and the melody, so much better can you... dance. I can dance!