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Freidrich Neitzsche and Jane Austen

By February 20, 2024Commentary

Seems like a weird pairing, and not sure people care about what I read, but my biography shelf-clearing continues and I thought I might continue to share my impressions.  Obviously can’t write a lengthy review or you would all be snoozing, but some highlights might be of interest.

Neitzsche is called a philosopher, but in some ways is more of an essayist on the human condition and sociology.  Philosophers often focus on either the nature of reality and truth or how to best live a worthy life.  Neitzsche didn’t spend much time on the former; he focused on the nature of society and government and how an individual should respond.  Translation issues and snatching eye-catching phrases lead to a frequent misunderstanding of what he was saying.  He felt that most systems of “morality” were designed to enslave people and limit their ability to achieve their highest capabilities.  The strongest or greatest human would be the person who could move past the limits of these systems and strive for individual greatness.

Neitzsche suffered from life-long health issues, including near-blindness.  Notwithstanding these issues, he managed to write prolificly and was an active hiker.  His health issues culminated in insanity with institutionalization during the last years of his life.  Neitzsche’s sister, with whom he eventually had a full breach, was a rabid anti-semite, and following Neitzsche’s descent into madness, she skewed his writings to support Aryan supremacy and anti-semitism.  As you might imagine, Hitler and the Nazis were more than happy to pick up on this twisted interpretation of his writings.  Neitzsche himself had good relationships with many Jews and was distressed by what his sister did when he was still aware of events.

Like many writers, Neitzsche, while achieving recognition during his lifetime, had very limited financial success, certainly compared to sales of his works even today.  I am constantly impressed how often people in the fields of arts and letters reaped little benefit from what they produced during their lives.  Jane Austen is another author who experienced some fame during her life, particularly toward the end, but didn’t make a lot of money from her works, which continue to be among the most widely read of any classic author.

Ms. Austen is notable for two primary achievements.  One is that she began a trend toward writing novels that were more “realistic” in the sense of describing relatively ordinary, what would now be considered middle class, people and their daily lives–what key events they dealt with, their interior thoughts and feelings regarding those events, their struggles to achieve happiness and have a successful live.  The second is that she was at the forefront of the emerging movement to view and treat women differently–as having the potential to work, to have a life outside of the traditional family, wife and mother roles.  Her own family was very supportive of her work as a writer and her decision to focus on that.  Like Neitszche, she had a relatively short period of work, as she died quite young.  It is hard not to imagine what outstanding works she might have produced with a few more decades of life.

One of the things I find most fascinating in reading these biographies is the descriptions of the times these people lived in and what daily life was like.  The interplay of macro-level events and the works of the authors is always intriguing.

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