Nietzsche is one of your philosophical specialities. So how did you first become interested in him?
It was a very precise moment. Easter Sunday 1982. I think it’s deliciously ironic that it was Easter Sunday. As an undergraduate I was taking a course called “Kant to 1900” with Richard Rorty at Princeton University, and the course included a couple of weeks on Nietzsche. So on that Sunday I began reading the Nietzsche assignment – it was actually a very early essay that Nietzsche never published, called “On Truth and Lies in an Extra Moral Sense”. I was very taken by it and from that moment on I became very interested in Nietzsche.
What did you particularly like about him?
I had actually become interested in philosophy from reading Sartre as a high school student in French classes. The essay Rorty assigned starts on a very existentialist note – and of course the writing was very evocative. At this point I was reading it in English but Walter Kaufman’s strength as a translator is that he captures the flavour of Nietzsche in English. He’s not the most literal translator but he is the most evocative. So it was a combination of the proto-existentialist themes and the style of the writing that I found very gripping. And that sense never left me – I still always enjoying reading and re-reading Nietzsche.
We’re going to talk about five books you’d recommend for someone who’s interested but not an expert in Nietzsche. You’ve chosen a mixture of primary and secondary material. Would you say it’s best for readers to begin with the modern academic texts or should they go straight to Nietzsche first?
I think it’s a question of whether they’ve had any exposure to philosophy. If somebody has not had much exposure to philosophy, then it might be best to start with the Safranski biography before going to the primary texts. The primary texts are certainly more fun and if you were to start with one of them, then Beyond Good and Evil would be a great choice, because it covers all the distinctive and important Nietzschean themes and as it’s broken into bite-size pieces you don’t get overwhelmed. But if you wanted someone to patiently introduce you then Safranski is good on that score.
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