The Atlantic

How to Live Better, According to Nietzsche

John Kaag’s fascinating new book about the German thinker seeks to tether philosophy back to the mess of daily experience.
Source: Jake Foreman

The dubious notion that philosophy is a guide to calmer living is as old as the field itself. Saint Augustine described philosophy as a “harbor” for troubled souls in a fourth-century monograph on the happy life, and the sixth-century Roman senator Boethius titled the treatise he wrote while awaiting execution “The Consolation of Philosophy.” More recently, in his Philosophical Investigations (1953), Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested that the aim of philosophy is not to seek the truth but rather to provide relief—“to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” Wittgenstein didn’t embrace “a single philosophical method.” Instead he concluded, “There are indeed methods, different therapies” to quiet the buzz of our puzzlement.

Nietzsche, by contrast, had no stomach for palliatives. As John Kaag reflects in his new memoir cum philosophical excursion, , the German thinker aimed “to terrify rather than instruct us.” “Become who you are,” the quotation that Nietzsche chose for the epigraph of his graduate dissertation, is a line from the Pythian odes of the Greek poet Pindar. Bereft of context, this pronouncement can sound as flabbily vacant as the text of a self-help and become who you are.” Nietzsche knew that if philosophy can serve as therapy, it’s by delivering an electric jolt to the soul.

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