By R.J. Hollingdale.
216 pages
Cambride, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999, revised edition
ISBN: 0-521-00295-8

Comments of Bob Corbett
July 2001

R.J. Hollingdale's Nietzsche volume is not merely a biography and guide to reading Frederich Nietzsche, it is a major scholarly achievement which radically revises the accepted view of Nietzsche as a near crazy-genius who writes brilliant aphorisms on his way to insanity, to a view of a consistent growing philosophical genius who happened to go mad after finishing his major philosophical contributions. The book reads well, interestingly, clearly and with well-argued and demonstrated claims. It is simply a must as a companion reading for any serious look at Nietzsche's work.

I do plan to post a much more detailed outline of the book and my notes and reflections along the way of reading it, but here I offer a shorter summary of two main issues:

These will be followed by a few remain comments I wish to make.

According to Hollingdale the standard view of Nietzsche which one finds in much of the scholarly literature is as follows:

  1. Nietzsche is a great (if erratic) genius.
  2. His style (and philosophical contribution) is aphoristic. This means interpretation is extremely difficult, but required. This analysis must be of:
    1. Individual texts.
    2. Of necessity subjective.
  3. Nietzsche is always in the process of going mad, likely a congenital condition. After all, his father went mad too.
    This adds to the difficulty of understanding and interpretation and requires that analysis must be of:
    1. Individual texts.
    2. Of necessity subjective.


  1. Nietzsche is a great genius and a systematic philosopher.
  2. His work constitutes an understandable coherent whole in the following manner:
    1. Early exploratory works:
      • Human All Too Human
      • Daybreak
      • The Gay Science
    2. Thus Spoke Zarathustra (the heart of Nietzsche's contribution)
    3. Working out details of Zarathustra:
      • Beyond Good and Evil
      • Toward A Genealogy of Morals
      • Twilight of the Idols
  3. The Nachlass (unpublished works found after his death)

Hollingdale argues that these are of little use except to learned scholars of Nietzsche since:

  1. Many of the texts rejected by Nietzsche.
  2. These were not chosen for publication by him.
  3. Many are unfinished and difficult to order or evaluate.
  4. Elizabeth Nietzsche rushed some of these into print without decent scholarly safeguards, and with ideological purposes quite contrary to her brother's views.
  5. A generally reliable and scholarly version of the Nachlass was not available until 1960s.

After trying to turn our attention away from the "standard view" toward his view which gives us a much more formidable and important philosopher, Hollingdale then gives us an overview of this Nietzsche the systematic philosopher.

The key line of this Hollingdale-interpreted position is this:

  1. From Darwin's work on evolution the implications lead to…
  2. Meaninglessness. Human existence -- all existence as well, follows the mechanism of:
    1. Accidental change.
    2. Survival of the fittest changes in the struggle for existence.
    3. This is a directionless universe without any point, sense or meaning.
  3. Thus central problems:
    1. How to avoid the nihilism which would seem to follow from this objective meaninglessness.
    2. How humans can protect from become a "by-passed" species, overcome by evolution.
  4. Solutions:

    The key possibility for humans is the will to power which can allow an evolutionary development of the human race toward the overman (Ubermensch), the bridge to evolutionary future.

    This is, if you will, the future and surpassing of humans in evolution.
    1. Overman must overcome being human. (Note title of his first major work: Human All Too Human).
    2. Overman must liberate humans from the weaknesses imposed by Christianity's taming of the human tendency to create futures in struggle.
    3. Humans must re-embrace the will to power in intelligence.
    4. In doing so the individual must take responsibility for:
      1. The revaluation of values.
      2. The creation of values.
      3. This is stark movement away from Christianity.

While there are several other famous and important sub-themes in Nietzsche's work (the death of God, the eternal recurrence, the revaluation of values and so on), the brief sketch above is the bare bones minimum and heart of Nietzsche's view according to Hollingdale.

I think it is important to emphasize that Hollingdale is arguing strongly that the very essence of Nietzsche is not a nihilistic philosophy, but just the opposite, an attempt to save humans from meaninglessness, giving us a system of meaning rooted in human choice and responsibility (the will to power) rather than in God, religion or the close substitute, natural law.

In a 1999 Afterword for this revised edition Hollingdale tackles briefly the question of other scholarly accounts of Nietzsche. This fascinated me and pointed me in the direction of my next second source reading on Nietzsche -- Jacques Derrida. Hollingdale allows that his own understanding of Nietzsche was deeply enriched by Derrida's extensive analysis of Nietzsche. Hollingdale is also influenced by the work of Walter Kaufmann. He says his own view is not much different from Kaufmann's except that Kaufmann gives up a more "humanistic" Nietzsche than Hollingdale believes is justified.

Of the major Nietzsche scholars the one who comes in for the strongest negative criticism is Martin Heidegger. Heidegger's four volume Nietzsche work is quite famous, but Hollingdale argues this book is much less about Nietzsche than it is about Heidegger. As such he doesn't criticize it. However, as a biography and analysis of Nietzsche Hollingdale argues that it is only of questionable value.

Anyone who wishes to read and understand Nietzsche with seriousness and make use of his phenomenally challenging and CONSTRUCTIVE understanding of human existence should have the R.J. Hollingdale volume as a close companion to reading the relatively small set of published works which constitute Nietzsche's philosophical core.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett