The Princeton philosophy course, PHI 306: Nietzche, draws a motley crew: philosophy students, economics majors, software and electrical engineers, Christians, anti-Christians, agnostics, aspiring fiction writers, theater kids, recovering finance interns, life-sworn Ayn Randians, members of the Young Democratic Socialists, and elderly community auditors from the town of Princeton. It is difficult to pinpoint why Nietzsche appeals to people with such different identities. All one can say is that, to some swath of Princeton students, for some inexplicable reason, enunciating the name “Nietzsche” brings a gushing sense of empowerment and evokes a mysterious—and dangerous—charm.
The celebrated status of this class partially owes to Professor Alexander Nehamas, a philosopher and an aesthetician who teaches the course. “I don’t want this to be a safe space,” said Nehamas on the first day of class, pronouncing the rules of engagement to young enlistees. “This semester, I want you to join the journey of finding out what the ‘good life’ is.”
Most university philosophy departments have retreated far from the “big questions.” And given Princeton’s dominantly analytic—as opposed to continental—tradition, non-philosophy majors who enroll in philosophy courses to ponder “the meaning of life” are often baffled in a thicket of symbols and abstraction, smacked by technicalities rather than profundities. However, Nehamas encourages his students to boldly plunge into the big questions. After bouts of lonely shadowboxing with elusive existential inquiries, students come to regard Nehamas in the way Plato looked at Socrates: not just as a deliverer of knowledge but as a lodestar for searching souls. (The online course review for PHI 306 is awash with praise: “Do yourself a favor and take it.” “Take this class if you are a person.” “Do it. You can’t exercise your Will to Power if you don’t know what it is.”)
On one crisp autumn day, Nehamas appeared to class trim with dark chestnut loafers, tightly tucked shirt—his cuffs flipped back just enough to see the gauntlet button—and rolled-up sleeves revealing a brown leather watch. His white-blond hair is covered like thin silky threads of bright silver as if his years at Princeton, where he received his Ph.D. in 1971, have bleached out every hint of gray.
Philosophy lectures can easily turn into jargon-heavy esoterica, but Nehamas engaged the crowd with brio. When explaining Richard Wagner’s influence on Nietzsche, he flicked his hands up and down expressively like an orchestral conductor. “Among all individuals,”—he pantomimed the globe with his hand—“Proust is the best model of life,” claimed Nehamas as he presented his view of the “good life.” After an operatic outpouring of Nietzsche’s ideas, he delivered the finale: “An ideal work of art is the work in which every single piece plays a role.”
In person, Nehamas is welcoming and attentive with occasional flashes of piquant wit. On a recent morning he was conscious of time—“I have three appointments after this”—but never impatient. Our conversation ranged from the concept of friendship, the making of a hero, creating art, the idea of originality and usefulness, what makes the “good life,” and more. Talking with students, he listens with hand on chin and gladly explains concepts from lectures. When it comes to philosophical arguments, however, he expects them to clearly define their terms—“I don’t know what you mean by ‘sublime’”—and he corrects their mistakes. He becomes an exacting partner in an intellectual pas de deux—an aesthete’s fondness for balletic smoothness in philosophical discussions.
Nehamas does not believe that happiness is the most important goal of life. Instead, he thinks we should live our lives as if we are creating a work of art. He believes Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time demonstrates his idea of the good life. “A man has always wanted to become an author,” Nehamas said. “One day, when he dips a madeleine into a cup of tea, all of a sudden, his childhood comes alive. And he tells you his story from his childhood on.” Nehamas gave a brief summary of In Search of Lost Time. “One day, he has an experience not unlike the one with the madeleine when the past comes back. He, all of a sudden, says, ‘I know what my book is. My book is my life. So, I’m going to start writing,’” said Nehamas. “But of course,” he smiled, “the book has been written already. It moves in a perfect circle, a concrete image of Nietzsche’s view of ‘the eternal recurrence.’”
Despite the narrator’s failures and rejections throughout the novel, his life has become “a perfect object” at the end. In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche wrote: “You have it in your power to merge everything you have lived through—attempts, false starts, errors, delusions, passions, your love and your hope—into your goal, with nothing left over.” To use a Nehamasian locution, the narrator’s life is “an ideal work of art.” Perfection may be the word for it.
Sometimes, however, Nietzsche can be too much to bear for students’ psyches. One day Nehamas was explaining whether Nietzsche denied that truth exists. “Does he believe that there is no truth?” he asked. Then, in the middle of the lecture, a student ran down from the back of the lecture hall to the exit in the front. The student stopped briefly when he got to the front, and he and Nehamas looked each other in the face. The student said something in an inaudible murmur and walked hurriedly out the door. Nehamas turned to the audience and asked, “What have I done?”