Clerestory

The Aphoristic Form

November 26, 2021

Where does morality come from?

Some might resort immediately to human nature, but this, to me, is tantamount to saying that it has no origin. Nietzsche thinks it must be a cultural development, and that it may have developed relatively recently. In his 1887 “polemic” On the Genealogy of Morality, he sets out to explain his views about the matter — or, perhaps more accurately — to provoke and incense his readers into thinking about it for themselves.

Today I want to reflect on a provocation in his preface, and his description of how to digest his difficult material. Morality will have to wait.

In the final section of the preface (§8), Nietzsche gives a rather stunning disclaimer (Carol Diethe’s translation PDF; German here):

– If anyone finds this script incomprehensible and hard on the ears, I do not think the fault necessarily lies with me.

With whom, then, could it lie?

It can only be you, the reader. There’s no one else “here,” as it were.

Well the room is so stuffy I can hardly breathe. Everybody’s gone but me and you, and I can’t be the last to leave…

– Bob Dylan, “Pledging My Time,” Blonde on Blonde (1965)

This is a provocation, and his argument still has yet to begin. An author feels called to write, hears the call and obeys. This brings the book into existence. But the reader, too has felt called by the book, heard the call and obeyed.

The meaning exists between them, in an intersubjective space. This is a conversation — but it’s not necessarily going to be an easy one.

We’re in this together now, or so he seems to say. And Nietzsche’s not going to make it easy:

It is clear enough, assuming, as I do, that people have first read my earlier works without sparing themselves some effort: because they really are not easy to approach. With regard to my Zarathustra, for example, I do not acknowledge anyone as an expert on it if he has not, at some time, been both profoundly wounded and profoundly delighted by it, for only then may he enjoy the privilege of sharing, with due reverence, the halcyon element from which the book was born and its sunny brightness, spaciousness, breadth and certainty.

Not having read Zarathustra myself as of this writing, I’m immediately at “fault” (as he writes in the first sentence; Schuld can also mean “blame” or “guilt”). And to say that the book came from a “halcyon element!” That is, exhibiting the peace and tranquillity of the halcyon or kingfisher! Nietzsche is not a man known for his “sunny brightness.”

It’s also staggering that Nietzsche assumes that the reader is not only willing to make an effort, but already has made an effort, by having read a book that is famous for its opaqueness and difficulty. Here’s Wikipedia:

Though there is no consensus with what Zarathustra means when he speaks, there is some consensus with what he speaks about.

I love how low a bar this is. There is some consensus about what the topics are, though no one can agree what is actually said about those topics.

Even more hilariously, Nietzsche is writing this preface in 1887, the same year that the first three parts of Zarathustra were published — it wasn’t published in its entirety until 1892. What a power move to expect the reader to have read Thus Spake Zarathustra, and not just to have read it, but to have been “profoundly wounded and profoundly delighted by it,” when it’s barely off the presses, and the final part is not even close to published.

Nietzsche continues, with the section that made me want to write about this preface:

In other cases, the aphoristic form causes difficulty: this is because this form is not taken seriously enough these days.

Presumably he is pre-emptively responding to the assumption that the structure Nietzsche uses in the Genealogy and elsewhere — short aphorisms ranging from a paragraph to a few pages — is not a serious form of writing.1

What is the aphoristic form?

It’s a short essay that follows a single line of argument, but often references other aphorisms. Nietzsche quotes himself constantly, far more than he quotes anyone else.

See where this is going? An aphorism is basically a Zettel: an atomic piece of writing that is linked to other notes.

What would it mean to take an aphorism as seriously as Nietzsche expects his reader to do? It’s not just reading. It’s an active process, and he’ll even give an example of how to do this:

An aphorism, properly stamped and moulded, has not been ‘deciphered’ just because it has been read out; on the contrary, this is just the beginning of its proper interpretation, and for this, an art of interpretation is needed. In the third essay of this book I have given an example of what I mean by ‘interpretation’ in such a case: – this treatise is a commentary on the aphorism that precedes it.

The word Nietzsche uses for “deciphered” is entziffern, to “decipher, decode, or decrypt,” though it can apparently also mean to “make out someone’s handwriting.” It implies a close attention to detail, possibly handwritten detail.

What Diethe translates as “interpretation” is Auslegen; Walter Kaufman (a famous translator of Nietzsche’s) goes for “exegesis.” Here’s the OED definition of exegesis: “An explanation or interpretation of a text, esp. of scripture or a scriptural passage. Also more generally: a critical discourse or commentary.”

It’s striking that this is essentially a religious act, originally restricted to religious texts. Given that Genealogy is a concerted assault on morality, and therefore on religion per se, it is striking that Nietzsche is involved in a practice that is, at its heart theological — a point to which I have alluded with respect to Kuhn, and to which I shall return.

So to “decipher” an aphorism is not just to read it. It’s actually to interpret it in writing, performing exegesis. It’s writing about the writing you’ve read, interpreting and glossing it, as literate monastics and Talmudic scholars have done for millennia.

By the nineteenth century, literacy has spread. From the Reformation, people begin increasingly to read the Bible in the vernacular. By the nineteenth century, exegesis has extended to non-religious texts, but (from the late eighteenth century) religious texts have also become subject to secular analysis.

Exegesis has broadened from a theological pursuit to other texts. It has become, in other words, philology, which the anthropologist Clifford Geertz defined in 1980 as “the text-centered study of language, as contrasted with linguistics, which is speech centered, has of course traditionally been concerned with making ancient or foreign or esoteric documents accessible to those for whom they are ancient or foreign or esoteric.”

Nietzsche, in his youth, had been an academic prodigy, becoming the youngest ever Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel.

What is it like to do philological exegesis?2

I admit that you need one thing above all in order to practise the requisite art of reading, a thing which today people have been so good at forgetting — and so it will be some time before my writings are ‘readable’ —, you almost need to be a cow for this one thing and certainly not a ‘modern man’: it is rumination

This is mulling over, close reading, which involves not just the act of reading closely, but the act of paraphrase, summary, interpretation, providing background and links. In other words, more-or-less what I’ve been doing this month, since my first post on my experience with the Zettelkasten.

In that post, I asked “Why take notes?” Nietzsche’s answer: “To ruminate.”

Nietzsche emphasizes the word rumination. The word is wiederkäuen, to “ruminate, rehash, remasticate.” To chew over.

To chew the cud.

I will come back to ungulates, their domestication, what humans have learned from them — and how this process relates to self-domestication.


  1. I suspect he has Schopenhauer’s Parerga and Paralipomena (1851; in English sections are translated as “Essays and Aphorisms”) in mind, but I’m curious to know how widespread this format was at the time.
  2. An extremely pressing and relevant question, and one I’m glad to finally be addressing.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.