Nietzsche begins “On the Pathos of Truth” with a sentence that merits an essay: “Is fame actually nothing but the tastiest morsel of our self-love?”
When I first read this question, years ago, I asked myself why it was so hard to understand. I refused to read the next sentence. I wanted to know who on earth says to themselves “I really love myself, so I want to know what aspects of myself are the most delicious. Oh look! There’s my fame [nom nom].”
It is a genuine contribution to explore how Nietzsche’s opening functions as writing. What might be meant by “fame,” what we associate with “self-love,” how the metaphor of eating works. What follows builds from the English translation in my possession and aims to be as expansive as possible. If one has more specific arguments about what is meant—ones taking into account the original German, or passages from Nietzsche’s other works—I hope they will eliminate what is inaccurate below.
One can straightaway argue that “fame” is not a problem in this first sentence, as Nietzsche’s very next lines make clear what he’s speaking about:
“Yet the eager desire for it [fame] has been linked to the rarest of men and to their rarest moments. These are moments of sudden illumination, moments in which the person stretches out his commanding arm as if to create a universe, draws up light from within himself and shines forth. At such a moment he is pierced by a certainty which fills him with happiness, the certainty that that which exalted him and carried him into the farthest regions—and thus the height of this unique feeling—should not be allowed to remain withheld from all posterity.”
I would say nothing is clear about this. A famous guy, doing something for which he will forever be famous, stretches out his arm “as if to create a universe?” A light “from within himself” shines forth? Because of these ridiculous happenings, he’s certain that what makes him feel great now should be a lesson to mankind evermore?
Nietzsche’s joking, but our temptation is to recognize the jokes and then conclude we know exactly what he’s talking about. I really don’t. Later, he will say this: “The boldest knights among these addicts of fame, those who believe that they will discover their coat of arms hanging on a constellation, must be sought among the philosophers.” I don’t know that this is true. If I am trying to be a philosopher, if I am trying to love wisdom, I’m seeking a public profile so survival is easier. I’m seeking one so people understand something of what I do and maybe even appreciate it or consider it relevant.
In this age, we assume we know what someone says because we think we’ve heard it all before. The television, the radio, and innumerable video and sound clips bait our minds into thinking the tone is the content. Lots of statements are pre-packaged for immediate consumption.
In order to get a sense of what Nietzsche’s aiming at, it’s helpful to list different notions of fame. What Nietzsche initially describes sounds that of a great leader. “Commanding arm;” “create a universe;” “shines forth [for generations].” One could turn to Hegel or Pericles’ Funeral Oration for more, but the classical critique that speaks for itself is from Xenophon’s Socrates. Here’s Socrates speaking to Plato’s brother, Glaucon:
“Glaucon,” he said, “do you intend to preside over our city?”
“I do, Socrates,” he said.
“By Zeus,” he [Socrates] said, “if indeed anything else among human beings is noble, this is. For it is clear that, should you accomplish this, you will be able to obtain for yourself whatever you desire and be competent to benefit your friends; you will raise up your paternal household; you will enlarge your fatherland; you will be famous, first in the city, then in Greece, and perhaps, like Themistocles, even among the barbarians. And wherever you are, you will be gazed at from all sides.” (Xenophon, Memorabilia III.6.2, translation Amy Bonnette)
You don’t even need the rest of the encounter between Glaucon and Socrates to see the parody. You want to govern? That’s amazing! You’ll get whatever you want (um), you’ll get stuff for your friends (okay), your family will be honored (sometimes), you’ll expand the borders (uhhhh), and the whole world will know you (um, no). It’s not at all like governance could be about, say, making sure people pay taxes or keeping walkways clean.
The notion of fame that goes hand-in-hand with governance is loaded. It implicitly holds there are superior beings who ought to rule the rest of us. Who know and act better.
This “classical” notion of fame—who ought to rule?—is one an audience into classical philosophy will have some familiarity with. Some of them will take it quite seriously, perhaps lamenting what has become of “real men,” etc.
There’s another notion of fame I’d like us to consider, though. One that I suspect a 19th century audience would, in general, find intuitive. Here’s Emily Dickinson:
“Fame is a bee.
It has a song—
It has a sting—
Ah, too, it has a wing.”
What’s at stake here is, for lack of a better term, a writer’s conception of fame. You could say “poetic” in order to contrast with the “political/philosophic” notion illustrated above, but I don’t want to assume that a strict contrast is necessarily helpful.
What’s more useful is identifying what’s important to the writer. So for someone who does something grand politically, what matters is that a virtue was demonstrated and acted upon. That people can see ennobling actions happen and respect who made them come about.
Here, the situation is entirely different. Writing always has a public aspect to it, even when done privately. Someone else could access one’s journal. That public aspect has to be addressed. Accordingly, Dickinson speaks of the prospect of fame tempting her, injuring her, and then flying away. Whatever publicity the craft of poetry entails may not directly relate to fame. In which case, fame may not be the “tastiest morsel” of “self-love.” Maybe self-love engenders poetic reflection, and that reflection becomes something else entirely.
“Our self-love,” Nietzsche says, and immediately I correct him: “you mean your self-love.”
A contemporary audience beyond myself won’t be comfortable with the concept. Yes, we talk about self-esteem. Yes, a few people have far too much confidence and not enough competence. But most confront new insecurities every waking moment. People do look at photoshopped photographs of models in advertisements and compare their skin. They worry night and day if they’re providing enough for their children, especially after hearing what other parents do.
Does self-love even exist? I haven’t begun to list how inadequate I feel at this moment.
I find it strange to think about what self-love looks like. It isn’t that of Narcissus, where his attitude itself is suicidal. And considerations of “greatness” obscure what it actually is. If someone thinks they’re great, they’re in love with what they think others ought to perceive. What does it mean to love the self, obscure, small, and misshapen as it might be?
I can imagine it looking like Emily Dickinson. Here’s Daniel Gleason:
“But Dickinson’s solitude seems to be the most resonate aspect of her work. She is America’s most famous recluse who became known for wearing a white dress and refusing to allow even her own doctor to see her face to face for treatments. Dickinson knew her poems were of the highest caliber, but she often indicated that she wished to receive her laurels after death rather than experience the intrusion of readers seeing into her soul while she was still alive.”
I’m thinking now of the times I’ve been, as the kids say, “dramatic.” Did I want to show that I could be independent of a world of expectations? Did I want to show that I loved myself enough to not care how others responded? And do I trust that I can leave a legacy that matters?
Self-love hinges on answers to those questions, I feel. But hers must be only one path to self-love, no? There are many of us with different ideas about what life means.
Every so often I find myself reading this one story, “I Have No Choice But To Keep Looking,” about two Japanese men who learned to dive regularly. One lost a wife, another a daughter in a tsunami. The bodies were never recovered. So they dedicated themselves to diving as often as possible until they found them. This went on for years.
The story describes their efforts to the point they sound obsessed, almost maniacal. Nearly every other aspect of their lives has been put on hold. It isn’t clear how they communicate with other people meaningfully. And then there’s a passage which quietly accounts for the sheer amount the gentleman who lost his wife has learned and found. How much he knows about how to identify and find things under the ocean. How many other bodies he’s found. How his efforts have helped save lives.
Someone might say “that’s not self-love.” But what does it mean to invite someone into your life, letting them become a part of you which you can’t do without? What does it mean to worry about them in the afterlife? Self-love is many things, including the desire to sacrifice, to experience sadness. Some things are more precious than our immediate contentment.
Fame and self-love, as we have seen, can lead to some complicated discussions. But Nietzsche goes further. What if self-love is delicious? What if it is something we can indulge? And if so, then is fame the tastiest part of it?
The way he sets up the question narrows the scope of our reading. We can’t really speak of self-love in the way I did in the section before, where it concerns fierce independence or a love beyond death. Self-love almost seems cartoonish in Nietzsche’s rendering. It’s something vain people obsess over. They may be happy others obey them, that servants respect them, that their peers oblige them. If they had fame, though, they could not just be happy but ecstatic.
It’s interesting that fame is linked to tastiness, not nourishment, but one still gets the impression that someone thinks it essential to living. In truth, vain people seek expressions of their power, and their power is their security. One might be tempted to say that fame has nothing to do with security, but famous people nowadays dominate our lives and get nearly anything they want. When they go broke or become bogged down by hard circumstances, they confront things which would break even the strongest: drug addiction, being cheated by one’s own parents, surrounding oneself with liars and thieves. Even then, there are second and third acts for them.
There’s a reason why people want to have a successful YouTube or Twitch channel, and it isn’t fame.
But the inadequacy of our neoliberal economy probably isn’t Nietzsche’s target. If Nietzsche means to speak of prideful politicians, imagining themselves givers of life to republics or saviors of the nation, then describing fame as delicious might have to do with rhetoric. This probably goes beyond politics, applying to those who think they can teach us morals. It isn’t just that a man thinks himself a great man of the age, deserving of fame then and evermore. It’s also that his words, and whatever words are used to remember him, are of the utmost importance. They secure him, and they are quite delicious.
What we can conclude: Nietzsche conceives a sort of person who is not simply vain, lusting for political power or philosophic accomplishment. That person wants “fame,” sure. And it does make them look ridiculous, as he demonstrates in the rest of the first paragraph of “On the Pathos of Truth.” There’s something else at work, though. In a way, they’re a point at which a number of assumptions meet. Someone who truly loves fame is someone who can genuinely love themselves. And what if they’re fully warranted in that love, in that they actually have something to give the ages that lasts?
So many take philosophy classes in order to win arguments or show how much more they know than everyone else. But some want to read one line of a text carefully and see what happens. How much is at stake in a carefully constructed work of philosophy? How closely does one have to read? I hope I’ve shown that “closeness” is a relative matter. It matters for the sake of a specific sort of scholarly argument what Nietzsche exactly means in “On the Pathos of Truth.” For those interested in philosophy simply—or, I daresay the truth—it makes perfect sense to think about what “fame” and “self-love” mean to us. Wisdom can’t possibly exist on the page alone.