Tutors Talk (& Read) Books: Jeff Black on Nietzsche
July 8, 2021 | Story by Les Poling / Video by Hannah Loomis
Annapolis tutor Jeff Black joined the St. John’s College faculty in 1999, bringing his background in political theory—which he also uses as a distinguished visiting professor of political science at the United States Air Force Academy—to the Program. We spoke with Black about Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and the everyday impact of the Great Books; read the interview below and watch the accompanying video here, in which he reads from and comments on a long passage from Zarathustra.
What is your academic background, and how did you find your way to St. John’s?
I grew up in Toronto, Canada, and attended Trinity College at the University of Toronto for my bachelor’s degree, where I studied history and international relations and planned to become a diplomat. But in my junior year I took my first class in political theory, and in his first lecture my professor began by saying, “This is the most important class you are going to take in your life.” He was right! I concentrated on political theory from then on. I went to Boston College for my PhD, where I wrote my dissertation on Rousseau’s Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts.
I found my way to St. John’s by chance: a friend of mine was a tutor here, and when I came to visit him I sat in on a freshman seminar. I had been having trouble getting my students at Boston College to speak in a class that I was teaching called “Rights in Conflict.” But in that first St. John’s seminar, I heard students speak for two hours, with scarcely a few interjections from their tutors, on the infinite in Aristotle. I was hooked.
Can you talk about when you first read Zarathustra?
I first read Zarathustra in Walter Kaufmann’s translation in the Viking Portable Nietzsche. I carried it in my backpack back and forth from my landscaping job during the summer of my junior year—verifying its portability. During my breaks I would read it and write notes in the margins. On a first reading, Zarathustra was overwhelming: its language is poetic and idiosyncratic, and it takes time to get a feel for the thinking that is behind and inside the poetry. It can seem grandiose at first, but there’s a lot of nuance and rapid movement of thought that emerge with familiarity. I knew I had encountered something great.
How has your relationship with the text changed throughout your life?
Well, both Nietzsche and Zarathustra have become more important to me over time, as I’ve come to see better the problem Nietzsche confronts and thinks he has overcome—the problem of nihilism, or the belief that nothing is worth doing because humanity has no future—and to hold the opinion that Nietzsche sees and addresses this problem better than my other favorite thinkers: Plato, Xenophon, Rousseau, and Musil, for example. I’ve also been fortunate to have a couple close friends who take Nietzsche very seriously, who have helped me see the depth of his diagnosis of the problem and the power of his solution.
Do you feel like your relationship with the text is academic? Personal?
Oh, it’s definitely personal. Nihilism is a problem for each of us. One of the things I think I’ve learned from Nietzsche is that an academic relationship to a text—or, for that matter, to anything—is either nothing or next to nothing.
I’m sure you’ve read and discussed Nietzsche with a wide range of people at the college. How do you think that has deepened or changed your relationship with the text?
In one respect, it actually becomes harder to talk with other people about a book as you get to know that book better. The temptation is very strong to try to drag others quickly to where you are; and that’s a mistake, because they won’t follow. So you need to listen carefully, pay attention to where they are, and then try to nudge them in the right direction—charm them into being willing to put in the time with the book. This often teaches you how strikingly far the real concerns of the book and the author are from the everyday concerns we all begin with. Being aware of this distance, and becoming familiar with the terrain that makes up this distance, is a great benefit of talking about Zarathustra with a wide range of readers.
Have you noticed students interacting differently with Nietzsche since you first started teaching at the college?
Not really. When I first started teaching, there was some concern about why Nietzsche was susceptible to being misused by the Nazis; now, the concern seems to have shifted to some of the strange and disconcerting things he says about sex, race, and slavery. But throughout my career I’ve been really impressed by how these concerns are overpowered by our students’ intellectual courage, both in our undergraduate and our Graduate Institute classes. Johnnies now and then insist on judging for themselves, rather than following the ill-informed prejudices of others. And they know that this means reading the whole text—not skipping those sections of Part Seven of Beyond Good and Evil that we used to omit from senior seminar, for example. It means talking through the strengths and weaknesses of the argument. And ultimately, it means saying “yes” or “no” to the text in light of one’s intellectual conscience. Our students were, are, and will be ready to have these difficult conversations.
What specific things do you find especially impactful about the text?
The strongest perspective on Zarathustra that I have at the moment grows from a short section in Part Four of Beyond Good and Evil that reads: “Whoever is a teacher through and through takes all things seriously only in relation to his pupils—even himself.” For a long time, I thought that was something to pride myself on—being a teacher through and through—but now I see that taking myself seriously only in relation to my students is a serious defect: I run the risk of being a teacher who has nothing new, good, or strange to offer my students. I run the risk of just reflecting my students back to themselves, rather than helping them to learn, which means to change.
This is one of the problems in Zarathustra: Zarathustra begins as a teacher of a new teaching, but his attempts to teach it fail in various ways, and his “student body” shrinks with these failures. In these failures, though, he learns to take himself seriously in relation to himself, and he becomes able to teach at last—so that the book ends with a near-repetition of the scene with which it begins. I have a lot to learn from Zarathustra from this perspective.
What are some of your favorite elements of Zarathustra?
I mentioned Zarathustra’s poetic, inspired, musical language, which can at first seem rebarbative and repetitive, especially in translation. But I’ve learned to see it like the ripples you see on the surface of the ocean, when something big has just dived deep. I’ve learned to ask, “What was it that just moved here? Where did it come from, and where did it go?” Also, Zarathustra consists largely of speeches, as its title suggests (though Nietzsche uses different German words to refer to Zarathustra’s speaking in the title and to Zarathustra’s speeches), but it also consists in actions: Zarathustra travels here and there, he meets and leaves other human beings, he goes up and down the mountain, and so on. These actions often provide a decisive commentary on his speeches, much as in a Platonic or Xenophontic dialogue. Lastly, there are sections of the work that are very beautiful and moving, at least to me. One of these is the section I’m going to read and talk about for the video component of this interview: section two of the Third Part of Zarathustra, titled “On the Vision and Riddle.” I find all of these aspects of the book—its language, its action, and its very moving argument—reasons to return to it again and again.
What do you think makes Zarathustra such an enduring work?
Chance, in all frankness. There’s nothing providential about history that protects great books and our ability to read them. We’ve just all been lucky to live at a time when Zarathustra and books like it are relatively readily available, and there are students of these books who can help deepen our understanding of them. We’re particularly lucky now to have a few such students of Nietzsche at St. John’s: recently, there’s been a lecture by one tutor titled “Nothing More Than What the World Offers,” on the eternal return of the same—especially as presented in works other than Zarathustra—and another tutor published a book on the Genealogy of Morals titled Warspeak: Nietzsche’s Victory Over Nihilism. But nothing keeps great books from vanishing, despite their greatness. Francis Bacon even compared time to a river in which empty things float along indefinitely, while weighty things sink immediately. Great books could be prone to disappear precisely because of their difficulty and untimeliness. Nietzsche, too, has doubts about the value of mere endurance, as the beginning of “On the Vision and Riddle” suggests.
Do you find yourself thinking of Zarathustra in day-to-day life, outside of an academic setting?
Anyone who remembers my earlier answer about an academic relationship can probably guess what I’m thinking about an academic setting. So maybe the easiest thing to say is that I think about Nietzsche and Zarathustra—or about Rousseau, or about the other authors that I’m living with, from time to time—while I’m going for a walk, and doing the dishes, and doing all the other similar things we do when we’re alive. The thoughts come, imperiously, when they want to; they don’t wait obediently for class to begin, and they don’t flee when it ends.
I do think Zarathustra promises meaning for our modern world. It, like most of Nietzsche’s books, is concerned with whether there is a solution to the problem of nihilism, or whether there is a good answer to the question, “what is worth doing?” This has pressing relevance to each of us, though the particular character of day-to-day life in our modern world is to deny or downplay this relevance.