The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism

  • Bernard Reginster
  • May 1, 2007
  • Series: Volume 10 - 2007

Bernard Reginster, The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism. Harvard University Press, 2006. 307 pages with index. $25.20. ISBN 0-674-02199-1

In his recent book, The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism, Bernard Reginster tackles the ambitious, and highly controversial, project of articulating a systematic interpretation of Nietzsche's philosophical project that coherently accounts for all of his distinctive themes as well as provides a framework for interpreting his more idiomatic views. In light of Nietzsche's own disdain towards the "will to a system," Reginster's approach depends upon his claim that Nietzsche's statement against systematizers in The Twilight of the Idols was the rejection of the aspiration to make philosophical knowledge an all inclusive system based on a small set of foundational, self-evident propositions and not the rejection of systematic thought per se. Adhering to this interpretation, he endeavors to demonstrate that Nietzsche's philosophy can be organized as a systematic response to the crisis of nihilism.

Reginster tries to diffuse some of the controversy regarding his use of Nietzsche's Nachlass (his unpublished notebooks) through an initial defense of what he calls a qualified version of the priority principle; that is, he will not accept views found in the notes as Nietzsche's considered thought unless they cohere with views explicitly expressed in the published works. In short, Reginster contends that since Nietzsche indicated he was at work on a significant project of revaluation of values, it is reasonable to think that at least some of the ideas in the notes reflect, not erroneous or rejected ideas, but rather the most sophisticated stages of his thought. If this is the case, a cautious reliance on the unpublished notes--which were written in a plain, straightforward style--is profitable for understanding the more esoteric published views.

As a result of the complex issues intrinsic to an analytical reconstruction of a rhetorician like Nietzsche, the book is highly technical. However, although Reginster's meticulous conceptual analysis can at times become somewhat laborious to read, his classifications often reveal keen insights and never fail to provoke further thought.

After an incisive introductory summa, Reginster delves into an analysis of what Nietzsche considered the nature and sources of nihilism to be. He observes that its ambiguous nature admits of two possible definitions: disorientation and despair. According to his account, nihilistic disorientation is the condition in which values have become devalued because they lack objective standing and therefore nothing really matters--life has lost its meaning. Nihilistic despair, on the other hand, is the condition wrought when our highest values cannot be realized in this world and there is no other world in which they can. It is this second description that Reginster presents as the crisis to which Nietzsche reacts. The main sources of this nihilism are the alleged death of God (the state in which belief in God and in another world has been discredited) and the additional assumption that human life has meaning only if these beliefs are the case. The reason for nihilistic despair, then, is the common supposition that our highest values in this world require the existence of God (or another world) in order to be realized. And it is in response to this inhospitable standpoint--the belief that our highest moral values cannot be attained under the conditions of human life in "this" world--that Nietzsche deems them life-negating values.

In chapter two, Reginster lays out Nietzsche's putative metaethical revaluation of values, which is his strategy for overcoming the crisis of despair. Since maintaining our life-negating values despite the death of God has led to nihilism as despair, the solution is to revalue our values. Thus, Nietzsche concludes that there are no objective values. Of course, the problematic consequence of this radical revaluation is disorientation. Nevertheless, Reginster sees this as a necessary, although volatile, first stage in Nietzsche's plan because it establishes what could count as justification for his ethical claim that the will to power is good. Regarding this metaethical revaluation, Reginster accommodates two plausible interpretations. First, on a subjectivist reading of Nietzsche's works, justification amounts to simply showing that the value called the will to power is a desire; since, normative values are desires with a higher ranking or greater influence among the rest of our desires. Second, according to a fictionalist interpretation, justification amounts to either applying existing positive evaluative predicates to the will to power in an ongoing game of normative make-believe or appealing to supposed new conditions of life to explain why the "new" evaluative principle better suits the situation than the old values (this is more of a seduction with normative appeal than a justification). Through this justification of the will to power as normative, Nietzsche is said to have averted nihilism as disorientation. In other words, he obtained the normative evaluative principle according to which he could conduct a substantive revaluation of morality, thereby overcoming nihilism as despair in a manner that would not lead back to nihilism as disorientation.

In chapters three, four, and five, Reginster provides a detailed analysis of the doctrine of the will to power, the concomitant revaluation of suffering, and the doctrine of the eternal recurrence. First, Reginster examines the connection between Nietzsche's will to power and Arthur Schopenhauer's two-tiered structure of human willing to substantiate his definition of the will to power as a second-order desire for the overcoming of resistance in the quest for a definite first-order desire. In short, Schopenhauer thought that all desires were need-based and that they could be categorized either as a first-order desire for a determinate object (i.e., food, wealth, etc.) or as a second-order desire whose object is a desire (i.e., the desire to have or pursue desires). On this account, it follows that three conditions must be fulfilled for the will to power to be satisfied: there is a first-order desire for a definite end, there is resistance to its satisfaction, and there is actual success in overcoming the resistance. Consequently, the will to power is inherently paradoxical; that is, as soon as the conditions for the satisfaction of the will to power are met it is again dissatisfied. Therefore, it is a self-perpetuating desire. Next, Reginster considers how Nietzsche revalues the meaning of suffering in human life by positing it as an ingredient of the will to power. Since the will to power is good, human suffering (Leiden)--construed as resistance--should not be viewed as something evil to be eliminated. Last, he assesses various interpretations of the difficult doctrine of the eternal recurrence and argues for a practical interpretation that understands it as an imperative to embrace the value of becoming and impermanence.

In his sixth and final chapter, Reginster contrasts suffering and the affirmation of life with weakness and the negation of life. In so doing, he considers Dionysus and tragic wisdom as the paradigmatic example of the creative life, the overman as representing the ideal pursuit of new challenges and the commitment to overcoming, ressentiment (repressed vengefulness) as the grounds for a genealogical critique of the life-negating values of compassion and happiness-as-permanent-satisfaction, the ascetic ideal as the prime example of the negation of life, philanthropy as an endorsement of euthanasia, and ethical elitism about the good life.

In this provocative book, Reginster argues for numerous controversial interpretations of Nietzsche's distinctive themes in an attempt to construct a systematic structure for the fruitful exegesis of his more opaque ideas. All this certainly seems provisional; however, given Reginster's rigorous analytical skills and the common desire to comprehend Nietzsche, I suspect that his thesis is not going away anytime soon. Moreover, since clarification is not necessarily rehabilitation, Nietzsche still remains an incendiary figure.

Michael Kallenberg
Denver Seminary
May 2007