The Gay Science Summary

Friedrich Nietzsche

The Gay Science

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The Gay Science Summary

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The Gay Science, known also as The Joyful Wisdom, by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, is a book of poems published in 1882, and with a second edition published in 1887. The second edition includes an expanded section—a fifth book and an added appendix of songs. The Gay Science contains the most poems of any of Nietzsche’s works. In German, the title is Die fröhliche Wissenschaft. The phrase “Gay Science” was well known at the time of publication, and was used by other authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. The phrase was associated with the art of poetry by The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary published in 1955. Thomas Carlyle wrote under the opposite title, “The Dismal Science.”

Written primarily in Sicily, Nietzsche’s The Gay Science strives to capture the essence of Provençal culture, focusing on the fusion of the free spirit, the knight, and the singer embodied by the troubadour, a type of knight-poet prevalent during the 13th century. The troubadour’s milieu was love as passion, as Nietzsche describes in another work, Beyond Good and Evil.

Much of the poetry in The Gay Science examines the idea of power, though Nietzsche doesn’t propose any theory on the subject. He also introduces the idea of eternal recurrence, the focus of his subsequent work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Perhaps the most resonant claim Nietzsche makes in The Gay Science is that God is dead. He writes about Buddha’s death, and how people display his shadow in caves. Because there will be caves for years and years, humans will never overcome or be released from the shadow of a dead god.

Nietzsche breaks The Gay Science into four books.

In book one, he posits that humans possess a need to create beliefs about their own existence in order to find meaning in life. Because of this, he writes that most people fall into a group without intellectual conscience, and because of that, will not question their own beliefs. From there, he offers the idea that there exists a nobler intellect—one that does question its beliefs—even if those beliefs constitute a traditional wisdom considered good by everyone else. Any questions that speak against that wisdom are therefore considered evil, the opposite of good. The one who questions is therefore viewed in such a light, and more specifically as one who brings evil. To counter this notion, he points out that the noble one will make sacrifices, though not all sacrifices indicate nobility.

Book two begins with the idea that the world is populated in large part by realists who like to tell others how things are, citing Socrates as an example. He proposes that the realist takes power over action, and is able to do so because such a person doesn’t want to act in a way that doesn’t fit with what society deems acceptable. This power is, according to Nietzsche, false because no one can determine another’s reality. For the rest of book two, he discusses three main points. First, he uses the example of women to point out that humans prefer spiritual fantasy to physical nature. In The Gay Science and his other writings, one of the recurring suggestions is that his relationships with the women in his family were less than positive. He tended to write about women in a less than flattering light. Next, he discusses the relationship between art and madness—which is interesting because seven years after he wrote and published The Gay Science, Nietzsche himself went mad—and the importance of the struggle of thinking. Then he discusses the German people and concludes book two with the notion that art, or fantasy, makes life bearable.

In book three, Nietzsche discusses the death of God. He says that not only is God dead, but it is humanity’s doing. Next, he writes that tragic poetry is responsible for this, and perhaps it would be better to write comedies.

Book four opens with Nietzsche declaring his love of fate. He decides to love nature because it affirms life, whereas following Christianity means saying no to life. He continues on to define humankind’s relationship to nature, magic, and science, highlighting figures such as Prometheus and the Native American Coyote trickster as spirits willing to take risks in order to achieve new knowledge. One of his closing suggestions is that humans live life asking whether they wish to experience an aspect one more time or an innumerable number of times.

Nietzsche was born in 1844 and died 1900. As a philosopher, Nietzsche’s works have influenced not only writers, but thinkers of every generation since, including Foucault, Derrida, and Jung. During the course of his life, he published 19 works, with his notebooks and a collection of manuscripts published posthumously.