I will admit I have been slightly bogged down with Nietzsche’s aphorisms. Even in the slim penguin volume there are a lot, and from such a varied writer this profusion means there isn’t really a pattern to be drawn out. Therefore, and since famously “an aphorism isn’t an aphorism unless you know what it means” (Winston Churchill), I will simply share a few which struck a chord with me, and explain why they did.
Nietzsche: At sunset in Genoa, I heard from a tower a long chiming of bells: it kept on and on, and over the noise of the backstreets, as if insatiable for itself, it rang out into the event sky and the sea air, so terrible and so childish at the same time, so melancholy. Then I thought of Plato’s words and felt them suddenly in my heart: all in all, nothing human is worth taking very seriously, nevertheless….
This was my favourite of the passages from the book (even if the aphorism is actually from Plato). Through the poetic evocation of the coming dusk, the knife edge between day and night, Nietzsche captures the essential absurdity of life, and simultaneously recognises that we can’t, that we mustn’t, submit to it.
Nietzsche: Whomever lives for the sake of combating an enemy has an interest in the enemy’s staying alive.
Aside from giving an insight into the Bond villain’s essential need to soliloquise, this suggests that we should work to let stuff go. As Hamlet said “there is nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so”; when the enemy is dead (ie when we don’t think about something) it loses its power over us. If we don’t keep it alive by thinking about it, we don’t give it the chance to hurt us.
Nietzsche: Everything habitual draws an ever tighter net of spiderwebs around us; then we notice that the fibres have become traps, and that we ourselves are sitting in the middle, like a spider that got caught there and must feed on it own blood.
Once we get caught in a habit, then to free ourselves we must destroy a little of what we are. This is because what we do comes to form our identity; someone who paints eventually becomes a painter, and someone who goes for jogs become a runner. This means we should be careful, or at least attentive, as to what become our habits, because once established they will be hard to uproot; the motto is to tie yourself to the habits that make you deeply happy and satisfied, and do less of the things that don’t.
Nietzsche: Someone who always wears the mask of a friendly countenance eventually has to gain power over benevolent moods without which the expression of friendliness cannot be forced – and eventually then these moods gain power over him, and he is benevolent.
You are happy because you smile, not the other way around. Laughter yoga is a real thing, and has been shown to be genuinely effective in boosting happiness, a kind of ‘fake it till you make it’ manifestation. In another example, pretending to be more confident, and playing as if he were, helped Gary Kasparov get out of mental ruts. To restate this idea (not, unfortunately, in Nietzsche’s words) “whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right”.
And finally, some wisdom which speaks for itself:
Nietzsche: When entering a marriage [or indeed any other kind of romantic relationship], one should ask the question: do you think you will be able to have good conversations with this person right into old age? Everything else in marriage is transitory, but most of the time in interaction is spent in conversation.
PS This is the fifth in my series of reviews and reflections on the Penguin Little Black Classics series. Each week I read a new one and post my thoughts on this blog. For the full list of posts, please click here.