Reading the New Nietzsche

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Reading the New Nietzsche
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In this long-awaited volume, David B. Allison argues for a "generous" approach to Nietzsche's writings and provides comprehensive analyses of Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and On the Genealogy of Morals. Unique among other books on Nietzsche, Allison's text includes individual chapters devoted to Nietzsche's principal works. Historically oriented and continentally informed, Allison's readings draw on French and German thinkers such as Heidegger, Bataille, Derrida, Birault, and Deleuze, while explicitly resisting the use of jargon that frequently characterizes those approaches. Reading the New Nietzsche is an outstanding resource for those reading Nietzsche for the first time as well as for those who wish to know him better.


Preface, Introduction, 1. The birth of tragedy, 2. The gay science, 3. Thus spoke Zarathustra, 4. On the genealogy of morals, Notes, index.

About the Author

DAVID B. ALLISON is a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is the editor of the ground-breaking anthology The New Nietzsche.



Perhaps more than any other philosopher who readily comes to mind, Nietzsche writes exclusively for you. Not at you, but for you. For you, the reader. Only you. At least this is the feeling one often has when reading him. Like a friend, he seems to share your every concern and your aversions and suspicions as well. Like a true friend, he rarely tells you what you ought to do that would be too presumptuous, immodest, or authoritarian. And friends don't moralize, either. They share secrets and encourage you to enjoy, travel, try something new, to get out of your skin for a while. As for the "others," he can be paralyzingly critical, lacerating in his acerbic wit and humour. But he won't betray you, of that you can be certain. You have earned his trust. You have both been there, on the oblique and pretty far down at times, really, but now you can laugh at the pettiness, the stupid mistakes, at all you had to go through to be where you are. No great revelations, no absolute knowledge, no timeless, leaden certainties-but things do look a bit different now, and one gets a better perspective on things, new perspectives, a nuanced appreciation. One is more tolerant of everything ambiguous and is far better disposed to oneself and to others. One begins to spare oneself the small annoyances, the sense of regret or shame, at the way things were supposed to be. And things take on a richer patina in turn, a sensuous immediacy, the way one feels after a long illness when rediscovering the simple fact that sunlight is itself a medium of pleasure, or when warm voices and laughter once again drift up from the evening boulevards below.

Nietzsche lends a remarkable historical and philosophical resonance to the wide variety of subject matter he writes about. Tacitus, Themistocles, Aeschylus, Emerson, Pindar, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Goethe, Empedocles, Schiller, Schopenhauer, Herodotus, and Heraclitus infuse his reflections as effortlessly as a returned gesture of welcome. In part, it is due to the fascinating wealth of material he draws upon, his great knowledge of traditional thought and faith, his concern to communicate through an effective literary style, and his remarkable control of rhetoric that enable his works to become so successfully personalized by the attentive reader. Of course, this is part of the problem as well; namely, the paradoxical fact that everyone seems to find a different Nietzsche, that he is continually being reinvented and reappropriated, precisely because his work so readily lends itself to the plethora of interpretations that have arisen in response to it. The interpretations vary from the naive to the sublime, from the desire to have his thought serve a quite narrow, particular interest, to reduce and simplify it to a caricature of itself, or to positively exclude it from the company of civil discussion altogether effectively, to interpret Nietzsche's work right out of all plausible existence. Nietzsche himself recognized that given the personal, intellectual, and historical specificity of the particular reader, any text would be necessarily factored by the agendas-the pretexts, concerns, and prejudices of the audience it chanced upon. And to write in such a way as to foster this diversity of interpretation is a signal mark of generosity by an author, a quality rarely found in traditional philosophers.

Nonetheless, Nietzsche's writings are far from rudderless, nor are they merely capricious exercises for the endless improvisations of the reader's imagination. Rather, Nietzsche writes for a particular audience, a particular reader. And in the same way, one has to work to cultivate and maintain a friendship, Nietzsche desperately sought to cultivate an audience-one he would come to call his "Good Europeans." What motivated Nietzsche to assiduously pursue such an audience was his deep conviction that he, perhaps more than anyone else at the time, was in possession of a newly emergent truth-one he experienced and internalized as a veritable trauma-namely, that the world was on the brink of a completely unfathomable disruption and dislocation. It was his recognition that the very foundations of Western culture were being with-drawn: the God of the West, who for millennia on end had served humanity as the font of traditional faith, as the creative source of all being, truth, and moral value, was no longer credible to the scientifically educated classes of late nineteenth-century Europe.

If the "death of God" is perhaps the foremost central concern in Nietzsche's work, it is precisely his response to this "greatest event in history" that governs the detailed analyses of his more general reflection. Specifically, two broad motifs organize Nietzsche's painful attempts to achieve some livable, thinkable, harmonious resolution to this situation: the first, on the brighter side, is what he terms the "newly redeemed" innocence of becoming. And this is already and palpably given to us as a de-deified world of nature and human nature, one that must be felt and experienced by all in the absence of the angry old God. Not only is this a universe of vibrant sensuous immediacy, but it also bears the enormous legacy of the classical civilizations, of European Renaissance humanism, and the Enlightenment project of modernity itself-an effulgent natural world of superabundant beauty and historical depth, whose very accomplishment subtends our every value, choice, and action. But, the second side is darker-Nietzsche's horrified apprehension that the old God had become ideologically resurrected as a savage form of modern nationalism, with its hydra-head of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, plutocratic greed, and class hatred-all hardened avatars of the old, universal church, only this time, emboldened by the prosperity of modern science and fuelled by a mighty industrial revolution.

The shadows materialized early on for Nietzsche through his firsthand experience of the highly mechanized and industrial-scale hostilities of the F'ranco-Prussian War, one Nietzsche knew could only be the Bismarckian herald of the unspeakable century to come. All the personal bitterness and pietistic ressentiment that had been developing for two millennia-now bereft of their stabilizing, if not fundamentally mendacious, ontotheological grounds-would be recast blindly and hatefully into the armed legions of so many divisive European nation-states. This will to destruction, nihilism, weariness, decadence, the all-so-many interconnected notions that Nietzsche struggled with in this domain, notions that would lead straight to despair and ruination-or, what he would simply call "woe" in Zarathustra-had to be thought through, anticipated, and countered on new grounds. It would have to be overcome by a willed unity of Good Europeans, and perhaps this might even have to come at an enormous human expense.. But nonetheless, these concerns crystallized into Nietzsche's oft-repeated "task," progressively elaborated throughout his principal texts and correspondence. This task, framed against a volatile Europe of discredited value formations, reeling into a thoughtless future, would prove to be the armature of Nietzsche's lifework, one that positively begged for completion against all odds. Ultimately, he knew, however, -that the larger task would be Europe's own. Nietzsche's personal task would be to articulate it, even if this sometimes entailed a tone of desperation or stridency in his writing. Given the urgency of his task-most simply stated, "I would like to take away from human existence some of its het: rtbrealdng and cruel character"-Nietzsche would attempt to induce a commensurate feeling and intellectual awareness in his audience. Writing to the heart as to the mind, he would draw upon every artistic and stylistic device from antique poetry and tragedy, from Aristotle right through contemporary opera, invoking a wide range of rhetorical and figurative usage: the employment of hyperbole, of striking imagery, the frequent use of aphorisms and apophthegms, of analogy and metaphor, as well as elements of musicality, psychological association and projection, of personal reminiscence, and more. Nietzsche would employ all, these stylistic devices to induce the reader to come to an understanding of his philosophical works, his reflections, indeed, of his very temperament and character. It is an extremely difficult thing to do well, especially for one who claimed to have written in blood.

The four works that are focused upon in the present volume-The Birth of Tragedy, The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and On the Genealogy of Morals-are surely Nietzsche's most celebrated and widely read texts. While they each express many of Nietzsche's central concerns and teachings, their style of composition differs significantly. The Birth of Tragedy (1872) was written when Nietzsche was a professor of classical philology at the University of Basel and it is projected as a relatively straightforward scholarly analysis of the evolution and decline of classical Greek tragic drama. But rather than deal with the textual provenance and derivation of the tragedies themselves, as would a more conventional philologist (careful to note interpolations or emendations in the text through later transcriptions, differing word usages, stylistic or grammatical inconsistencies, etc.), Nietzsche examines the broader culture, whose richness and creativity gave rise to these stunning accomplishments-dramatic tragedies that Nietzsche saw as the highest artistic achievement of classical Greek culture. In seeking to uncover the deep cultural dynamics of the classical period, Nietzsche hoped to present a model by which his contemporary audience could come to better understand the often obscure underpinnings of their own-modern-European condition and to prepare themselves in turn for the enormously difficult problems he foresaw emerging in the coming century.

Nietzsche attributed the decline of classical Greek culture, at least in part, to the progressively lessened importance given to its rich mythological heritage, and he struck a similar theme in The Gay Science, with his pronouncement that God is dead and that European morality itself was spiritually and intellectually bereft of any higher legitimacy than inertia and simple habit. In striking contradistinction to the scholarly organization of The Birth of Tragedy.




We often consider it a mark of ability or distinction in a thinker that a certain reputation should precede him, but in Nietzsche's case, the situation is altogether unique. Few modern thinkers have evoked such intense and widely differing responses as Nietzsche. In fact; the very mention of his name is usually enough to awaken strong opinion.' Thus, Nietzsche almost inevitably comes to our attention by way of reputation: our first encounter is usually second-hand, and it is not surprising to find that we are already predisposed toward or against him, even before having read a single one of his texts.

Nietzsche's reputation is especially problematic, however, in that it so rarely has any substantial bearing on the content of his work. For the most part, his general reputation derives from an overly curious fascination with Nietzsche's personal life, his physical and mental health, his associations with such figures as Richard Wagner, and his alleged attitudes toward women, religion, culture, politics, and morality. More often than not, the opinions formed on such issues as these have gradually hardened to become interpretive registers, each contributing to the reputation of Nietzsche, each precluding a relatively unbiased-much less, generous-analysis of his writings.

Of all the misplaced and unwarranted prejudices to envelop Nietzsche, however, surely the most baleful is his association in the popular mind with the extremist politics of national socialism. We now know, definitively, that, the association concerned his sister, Elisabeth, rather than Nietzsche himself, but this unfortunate prejudice persists, and it continues to operate at a distance, even upon his most well-intentioned reader.2 To address and, thus, to dispense with this most disquieting issue at the start, it should be enough to set forth the circumstances that gave rise to it.

It is well known that his sister professed great devotion to Nietzsche and that she often came to assist him in the management of his domestic affairs, particularly during his early years as a professor in Basel (1869-79). But despite her oftentimes practical help, she incessantly meddled in his personal and intellectual life, much to the detriment of his own interests. An early instance of her intrusive and thoroughly deceitful behaviour resulted in driving away one of -Nietzsche's closest admirers, Lou Salome, an extremely gifted and cultivated young woman, one of the few whose affection and companionship Nietzsche actively sought (later, after her marriage to Friedrich Andreas, Lou Andreas-Salome would become an intimate friend of Rainer Maria Rilke, Sigmund Freud, and Alfred Adler).

Even more distressing to Nietzsche, though, was Elisabeth's marriage to Bernhard Forster, an anti-Semitic propagandist who devoted the sum of his energies to founding a German emigrant colony abroad, in Paraguay, in the hope of revitalizing the racial and cultural "purity" or the Germanic peoples. While Nietzsche never really reciprocated Elisabeth's affection to the extent she had imagined, her marriage to Forster and her support of his extremist projects quickly brought the prospect of any fond relations with her brother to an end.3 When Forster died in 1889, Elisabeth returned to Germany, her modest inheritance lost in the support of her husband's bankrupt "Nueva Germania" colony. By this time, however, Nietzsche himself had fallen ill and was hospitalized, a helpless, mentally incompetent invalid. With no source of income and with her brother's fame quickly growing, despite his complete debilitation, Elisabeth promptly obtained a court order and changed her name from Forster to Forster-Nietzsche, thereby asserting at least nominal support for the claim of being her brother's closest collaborator.

She then threatened to sue her mother for administrative control of her brother's estate, which consisted almost entirely of unpublished manuscript material, as well as the copyrights and royalties from his already published work. In the face of a public lawsuit filed by her own daughter, Frau Nietzsche relinquished control of the entire estate to Elisabeth. With her brother's manuscripts in hand, Elisabeth set up a Nietzsche Archive and presided over the editing and publishing of the material. Having complete control of Nietzsche's writings, Elisabeth saw fit to publish only the material she thought highly of, and she deleted a considerable volume of work in which Nietzsche was highly critical of German nationalism, with its emphasis on racial purity, ethnic identity, and cultural genius. She also ignored extensive material in which Nietzsche ex-pressed toleration, even praise, of racial or ethnic equality, political internationalism, and cultural diversity.

To buttress the import of the writings she was then beginning to put out, she forged several letters in her brother's name and altered many others, thus making it appear as if she had been entrusted with the task she so shamelessly assumed as if Nietzsche himself had appointed her to be his chosen successor and interpreter.4 After she allied herself with various groups in support of defending and propagating a strictly Germanic culture (the Kulturkampf movement), especially with the Wagner circle of Bayreuth, Elisabeth's fortunes grew apace with the rise of extremist German nationalism. Seeking and receiving financial support from both the Hindenburg government and the National Socialist Party, she was particularly encouraged by the latter.

Indeed, because Of her marriage to Forster, she was elevated by the Nazi Party to the status of a far-seeing prophetess. With the political and financial support of that party, she and her cousin Max Oehler continued to direct the publication of unpublished manuscripts.5 Under the personal sanction of Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, the title of The Will to Power was placed on a mass of Nietzsche's posthumous notes and drafts, and after several variant editions, it was heralded as the official philosophy of national socialism. Only in the aftermath of the Second World War was it finally established that Nietzsche's thought had been distorted beyond recognition to serve the personal, financial, and political interests of his sister and to lend intellectual "support" to the desperate aims of a totalitarian government. But by then, almost fifty years after Nietzsche's death, the damage had been done. A large part of two generations of educated Europeans would come to regard Nietzsche as the prophet of unspeakable tyranny.


While the public reception of Nietzsche's work and, thereby; his reputation, were seriously compromised by his sister's manipulating activities, his own life by contrast was relatively modest. Born on October 15, 1844, in the village of Roken in Prussian Saxony, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was the first of three children, the only boy to survive, his younger brother, Joseph, having died in infancy. His father, Karl Ludwig, was a Lutheran clergyman as were, traditionally, both sides of the family. By 1848, Karl Ludwig's health began to fail, the result of what was then diagnosed as "brain softening" (i.e., a series of convulsive states compounded by extreme depression and paralysis); later, Elisabeth would attribute her- father's illness to a severe fall. The responsibility thus passed to Nietzsche's mother, Franziska, to look after the ailing Karl, to care for his two spinster sisters, as well as her mother-in-law, and to raise two young children. This became an increasingly burdensome task, especially following the death of Nietzsche's father in 1849. Having been provided with only a small pension upon her husband's death, Frau Nietzsche was obliged to leave the parsonage at Riiken and to install the entire family in a small apartment in the nearby town of Naumburg.

After nine years, she managed to purchase a village home, occasionally taking in boarders to help meet household expenses. A gifted child, Nietzsche was first instructed by his mother, and to a lesser extent, by his maternal grandfather, David Oehler (who served as the Lutheran pastor for the village of Pobles). In Naumburg, he briefly attended the local elementary school and was then transferred to a preparatory school for three years, after which he entered the Naumburg gymnasium. By the age of fourteen, he had won a scholarship to the prestigious boarding school of Pforta, just outside Naumburg. He pursued a traditional and rigorous course of studies at Schulpforta (as had Fichte, Novalis, Ranke, and other celebrated figures before him), where he showed exceptional abilities in classical studies and languages. A particularly good student, he also participated in many activities-chorus, theatre, hiking, and swimming and formed several lasting friendships there both with his fellow students and with his teachers.

If anything troubled him at Schulpforta, aside from the strictures of boarding school life itself, it was perhaps the school authorities' assumption that he had somewhat fragile health. The medical records at the school recalled the diagnosis of Nietzsche's father and gave instructions that young Friedrich was to be discouraged from any exhausting activity. His letters from this period, however, seem to attest to good health, save for some occasional remarks about "rheumatism" and, even then, persistent migraine headaches. It was expected of Nietzsche that, like his father and generations of his family before him, he would enter the clergy. In preparation for this seeming eventuality, Nietzsche enrolled as a student of theology and philology at the University of Bonn in the fall of 1864. His interests at Bonn proved to be more philological than theological, however, and he chose to devote himself to the lectures of two of Germany's most prominent classical philologists, Otto Jahn and Friedrich Ritschl. When Ritschl moved to the University of Leipzig the next year, Nietzsche followed him.

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