Reviewed by Greg Cochran
David Dockery, President of Trinity International University, describes C. Ivan Spencer’s new book as a brilliant and creative introduction to the profound thinking of Friedrich Nietzsche. In The Tweetable Nietzsche, Ivan Spencer tackles one of the twentieth century’s most influential philosophers. Spencer explains Nietzsche’s major ideas in a series of tweet-sized sentences, complete with #hashtags.
While novel, Spencer’s approach is no novelty. It’s a serious attempt to expose a younger generation of Christians to thinkers like Nietzsche. For Spencer, his burden grew as he attempted to explain foundational ideas (like those of Nietzsche) to students in his History of Ideas course. Through this experience, Spencer realized that students were not aware of the philosophy beneath the ideas permeating our culture. So, Spencer categorized the philosophy of Nietzsche under ten headings, which become his ten chapters. In each chapter, he focuses on tweet-sized propositions from Nietzsche to guide the discussion.
After closing the introduction with Nietzsche’s claim that the world is the will to power, Spencer begins chapter one with a discussion of the Nietzschean notion of the world being a monster, without beginning or end. Spencer shows how Nietzsche’s assertion is a product of assumption rather than fact. Likewise, Nietzsche’s proclamation that God is dead (and we have killed him), is stated more than proven. But Nietzsche is applauded for being soberly honest about the implications of believing that God is dead. Values and ethics dependent upon God must also die if God is in fact dead.
Once the old values are abandoned, the human will can impose new values and a new approach to ethics. For Nietzsche, abandoning god-centered ethics should prove liberating—even exhilarating. Spencer claims, “This spirit of triumphal overcoming through the will catapulted Nietzsche to the status of a cultural prophet and poet” (26).
Chapter one was an ontological discussion of the nature of the world and the demanded response from the individual—namely, a will to power. Chapter two moves from ontology to epistemology. Spencer asks what we really can know. From the perspective of Nietzsche, facts don’t interpret themselves. Spencer points out, “Will constructs all, so systems of truth and knowledge should never rule over the individual will” (31). Spencer notes how such Nietzschean notions have permeated postmodern thought and infiltrated our cultural consciousness, leading to a rejection of knowledge in general and moral facts in particular. Individuals are able to know truth, but only from the individual’s own perspective; there is no access to objective truth. Because there is no absolute truth, “perspectival beliefs carry as much weight as any other claim” (39).
Chapter three voyages beyond philosophical foundations into ethics proper, as Spencer explores Nietzsche’s ideas regarding moral values like good and evil. Spencer points out, “Many of [Nietzsche’s] works openly attack morality, but Beyond Good and Evil and Genealogy of Morals argue forcefully for a robust human action unconstrained by old moral binaries like good and evil, freedom and responsibility, merit and demerit, or honor and shame” (41).
For Nietzsche, in the face of possible nihilism, the individual must revaluate values for himself. Each individual must live dangerously guided by his own will. Spencer points out how our oft-quoted adage “you only live once” is directly related to Nietzsche’s ethical ideal of living beyond good and evil. Even more notable, Nietzsche’s ethical system demands a repudiation of Christian charity: “In our whole unhealthy modernity there is nothing more unhealthy than Christian pity” (51). Ironically, Nietzsche felt that it was Christian charity (not his own ethics) which led to nihilism.
Spencer points out that Nietzsche was deeply skeptical of any system which defines what is good. Nietzsche says, “whatever harm the evil may do, the harm done by the good is the most harmful harm” (56). By this, Nietzsche means that people must be free to create new values; those who demand everyone yield to old values are guilty of seeking to be tyrants. One can easily see how Nietzsche’s influence increased over the course of the twentieth century and continues on into the twenty-first.
Chapter four is an exploration of humanity itself. “What are we?” asks the chapter title. For Nietzsche, humanity is evolving. He was optimistic about what humanity might accomplish. This optimism was consistent with the growing German movement which became Nazism. In this chapter, Spencer discusses the role of Nietzsche’s sister Elizabeth, who was an avid Nazi sympathizer. Through her, Nazis (including Hitler) lifted key ideas and themes from Nietzsche and incorporated them into their totalitarian system.
Through a series of Nietzsche tweets, Spencer unpacks the notion of the ubermenschen, or overmen. One of the tweets reads, “Dead are all the gods: now we want the overman to live—on that great noon, let this be our last will” (77). Nietzsche thought that moving beyond democracy and beyond the traditional concept of God would prove liberating for humanity. Clearly, that proved not the case.
In chapter five, Spencer considers more fully the concept of the human will. Specifically, Spencer unfolds Nietzsche’s concept of will to power as it contrasts with the traditional Christian concept of free will. The succinct tweet to begin the chapter reads simply, “Life is will to power. #willtopower” (86). For Nietzsche, free will is an illusion. Humankind is subject to a mechanistic system of physics and nature which determine everything.
Spencer points out the futility of such thinking. For instance, this kind of determinism would make criminal activity impossible, considering the alleged criminal activity would ultimately have been determined outside the control of the individual’s will. In the face of such critiques, Nietzsche refused to revert to free will. Instead, he reframes the issue of human will into those with a weak will versus those with a strong will. In the end, Spencer shows that Nietzsche eventually moved toward a more compatibilist position.
The tweets of chapter six focus attention on Nietzsche’s concept of time and eternal recurrence. Quoting from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Spencer tweets the following message on time: “Joy does not want heirs, or children—joy wants itself, wants eternity, wants recurrence, wants everything eternally the same” (109). Spencer demonstrates how Nietzsche wants all action and meaning to be for now—not toward some end goal in eternity. As Spencer says, “Nietzsche feels that if you joyfully embrace eternal recurrence, then you must value this life for exactly what it is, not for what it might lead to” (109).
Chapter seven offers a survey of Nietzsche’s vision for politics and government. Predictably, Nietzsche prizes the individual over the group. The herd should not be free to stifle the individual’s will to power. Spencer points out that from Nietzsche’s perspective, “Egalitarian social schemes, whether democratic, socialistic, or communistic, only deter humanity from our next evolutionary stage” (114). Spencer does not offer the final word on exactly what form of government Nietzsche preferred.
Chapter eight is Spencer’s attempt to tweet Nietzsche’s life hacks. Spencer admits that this chapter is less focused than the prior ones, but he also insists that Nietzsche’s prolific output of advice warrants at least a chapter of space.
Chapter eight boasts gem after gem of provocative thoughts and propositions. Spencer reaffirms Nietzsche’s adage “live dangerously,” urging individuals to get out of their safe harbors and live. Spencer then explains why (according to Nietzsche) laughter is more deadly than wrath. He discusses Nietzsche’s famous quote: “When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you” (132). Such gazing, Spencer notes, leads only to existential despair. Several other statements are discussed. “There are more idols than realities in the world” (136). “One loves ultimately one’s desires, not the thing desired” (138). And, “That everyone may learn to read… corrupts not only writing but also thinking” (141).
Chapter nine is an exposition of Nietzsche’s worldview, which Spencer terms protean. Spencer says dissecting Nietzsche’s worldview is more like exploring mazes than traversing a labyrinth. He means by this that Nietzsche’s system was a rejection of systems. He was experimental and nonmalleable.
Nevertheless, Nietzsche has values. Spencer points out that Nietzsche values godlessness, the will to power, the overman, the transvaluation of values, and eternal recurrence. Spencer analyzes Nietzsche’s worldview with respect to coherence, correspondence, and practicality. To help with this analysis of coherence, Spencer juxtaposes will to power with Amor Fati (love of fated lives). Spencer also contrasts free will, morality, and herd ethics.
Spencer analyzes correspondence by re-examining eternal recurrence and determinism. Spencer analyzes Nietzsche’s pragmatics with a more thorough discussion of determinism, ethical egoism, eternal recurrence, and epistemological relativism.
The final chapter exposes Nietzsche’s underlying commitment to naturalism. In this exposition, Spencer demonstrates how Nietzsche falls prey to three unbridgeable thresholds: the threshold of nothing to something, the threshold of matter to living creatures, and the threshold of living organisms to human rational beings. Spencer then calls on former atheist Anthony Flew to bolster his critique of naturalism. In the end, Spencer offers this valuable appraisal of Nietzsche: “Even if we reject his conclusions, we can learn from him the values of tenacity and intellectual honesty” (173).
Greg Cochran is Director of Applied Theology, School of Christian Ministries, at California Baptist University. He is also Review Editor for Ethics here at Books At a Glance.
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Tweetable Nietzsche: His Essential Ideas Revealed and Explained