“Maxims and Arrows”
I wrote this paper for a philosophy class. It is an analysis of Nietzsche’s “Maxims and Arrows” using the literary style of Oscar Wilde and the spiritual beliefs of W. B. Yeats. Needless to say, I knew I would be the only one making an Irish connection on this one and I was happy to do so. And where else can you find Nietzsche, Wilde, Yeats, and the late Phil Hartman all together?
An Analysis of Nietzsche’s “Maxims and Arrows”
Oscar Wilde’s first stop on his lecture tour of America was New York City. When he arrived, he was asked if he had anything to declare (ostensibly bags, boxes, luggage, and the like). Ever quick-witted and elegant, Wilde replied, “Juste mon genie.” Nietzsche has a corresponding style, particularly in the “Maxims and Arrows” section of Twilight of the Idols. I would like to analyze this selection first by summarizing what I believe it means, next by comparing Nietzsche’s literary technique to that of Oscar Wilde, and finally by juxtaposing Nietzsche’s comments on religion with W. B. Yeats’ mystical theories.
In “Maxims and Arrows,” Nietzsche presents forty-four short but loaded tenets with topics ranging from war to truth to women. Essentially, they amount to Nietzsche observing and dissecting aspects of life as part of his “great declaration of war” against the idols—the old guard, the traditional ways of seeing the world (Nietzsche 466). Some of these maxims are rather serious and some are flippant. Number eight, for example, is Nietzsche’s oft-quoted, “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger” (467). Certainly this adage holds some validity and offers encouragement to the reader. Skipping ahead to number eleven, Nietzsche writes, “Can an ass be tragic? To perish under a burden one can neither bear nor throw off? The case of the philosopher” (468). At first glance, I had to laugh at this passage, its seriousness notwithstanding. It reminded me of yet another Phil HartmanSNL skit in which he played a crackpot acting coach who asked his students to decide whether a chair was comic or tragic. Upon deeper observation, however, I realized the gravity of the question. The animal is presumably miserable having to perpetually endure hard labor its entire life but cannot free itself. Nietzsche labels this “the case of the philosopher” and I think it is an allusion to how philosophers must constantly deal with the burden of analyzing and rehashing ideas, values, and ways of life. The question then becomes something like this: even if a philosopher wanted to unshackle himself, could he? (Obviously I do not have some life-altering answer for that rhetorical query.) The remaining maxims continue in much the same fashion as Nietzsche poses tricky, complicated situations to his readers.
The literary structure of “Maxims and Arrows” immediately reminded me of Oscar Wilde. Wilde liked to use clever one-liners and short passages to convey his ideas. I am forever awed by how much he could say in so few lines (witty succinctness is a rarity these days). Maxim number two reads, “Even the most courageous among us only rarely has the courage for that which he really knows” (Nietzsche 466). This is akin to Wilde’s observation, “The basis of optimism is sheer terror.” I believe Nietzsche’s comment refers to the level of bravery it would take to fully comprehend the nature of human life. Likewise, Wilde contends that optimism is born from fear and panic—a kind of band-aid to conceal anxieties about the future. Number four asks, “‘All truth is simple.’ Is that not doubly a lie?” (Nietzsche 467). Wilde has an obvious parallel when he writes, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” There is nothing simple about truth and there is no way to broadly label “all truth” as anything. Number seven states, “What? Is man merely a mistake of God’s? Or God merely a mistake of man’s?” (Nietzsche 467). Wilde quips, “I think that God in creating man somewhat overestimated his ability.” Did God miscalculate his ability to control mankind when he created humans or did humans misjudge their ability to control the concept of God when they invented him? Again, there are no concrete, fail-safe answers. Number thirty-eight reads, “Are you genuine? Or merely an actor? A representative? Or that which is represented? In the end, perhaps you are merely a copy of an actor” (Nietzsche 472). Two particular remarks from Wilde stand out. First, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” Second, “I love acting. It is so much more real than life.” People most assuredly copy aspects of others and sometimes the boundaries blur between where one person’s authentic personality ends and a phony persona begins. In fact, some people do become copies of actors as Nietzsche puts it. They emulate a character who is not real and place aspects of the character’s behavior into their own lives. I believe Nietzsche and Wilde criticize many of the same problems and in this particular part of Twilight of the Idols, they have related literary methods.
Though Nietzsche and Yeats are worlds apart in their spiritual practices, they do argue one related idea: Christianity is dying and will be replaced. They are both curious and apprehensive about what will rise up in its place. Yeats concludes “The Second Coming” by asking, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” (21-2). While I agree with Yeats that history is cyclical, I have trouble believing that anyone can pinpoint exact years in the rotation. Yeats, on the other hand, did:
A deeply religious man who found himself unable to assent to Christian doctrine, Yeats nonetheless exploited imagery supremely saleable in Catholic Ireland and the Christian West. In “The Second Coming,” his conception of history as unfolding in two-thousand-year cycles, each inaugurated by a dramatic cosmological revelation, is versified in a thoroughly anti-modern eschatology: What kind of era will follow the pre-Christian and now-fading Christian epochs? (Reilly v)
Number twenty-four of Nietzsche’s maxims reads, “By searching out origins, one becomes a crab. The historian looks backward; eventually he also believes backward” (470). I think just as there is a danger to ignoring history, there is likewise a danger to allowing one’s life to be completely absorbed by it. Sometimes progress can only be made by breaking away from past traditions. Nietzsche and Yeats subscribe to this notion, albeit in different ways. In number forty-two Nietzsche proclaims, “Those were steps for me (the questions of conscience), and I have climbed up over them: to that end I had to pass over them. Yet they thought that I wanted to retire on them” (472). Nietzsche has overcome his questions of conscience and accordingly moved past them. He believes the same phenomenon will happen with Christianity. When people realize the restrictive, debilitating effects of the religion, they will cast it off and something else will develop. Nietzsche also seeks to topple the philosophical “idols” who have influenced popular thought ever since, hence the title of the book, Twilight of the Idols.
I opened this essay with words of wit from Wilde and he seems a good choice for concluding it as well: “One is tempted to define man as a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason.” Indeed, it seems that much of this philosophizing causes more confusion than it eliminates. But I believe, particularly in how it relates to the works of Wilde and Yeats, “Maxims and Arrows” is worth exploration.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin
Wilde, Oscar. “Oscar Wilde.” Quotations by Author. 2003: n.pag. 14 Apr. 2003
Yeats, William Butler. “Easter 1916” and Other Poems. Ed. James Reilly. New York: