Unlike his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, which was written in essay style, Human, All Too Human is a collection of aphorisms, a style which he would use in many of his subsequent works. The aphorisms of Human, All Too Human range from a few words to a few pages, but most are short paragraphs. The first installment’s 638 aphorisms are divided into nine sections by subject, and a short poem as an epilogue. The phrase itself appears in Aphorism 35 (originally conceived as the first aphorism) "when Nietzsche observes that maxims about human nature can help in overcoming life's hard moments." Implicit also, is a drive to overcome what is human, all too human through understanding it, through philosophy.:xix The second and third installments are an additional 408 and 350 aphorisms respectively.
The genre of the aphorism was already well established at this time - in the German tradition Nietzsche's most important predecessor was a figure of the Enlightenment, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, whose writing Nietzsche greatly admired.:xv Nietzsche's work is indebted also to Schopenhauer's, particularly his Aphorisms for Practical Wisdom, 1851. Above all is the "debt to the French tradition of the aphorism - for Nietzsche's work is a deliberate turn westward.":xv Nietzsche cites the French aphorists Jean de La Bruyère and Prosper Merimée, and in Aphorism 221 celebrates Voltaire. At the beginning of the second section Nietzsche mentions La Rochefoucauld - named here as a model, the epitome of the aphorist - and it is known that Nietzsche had a copy of La Rochefoucauld's Sentences et maximes (1665) in his library. He had been reading it shortly before beginning to write Human, All Too Human, - on the train ride to Sorrento in fact. More than that of the other French aphorists mentioned, it is La Rochefoucauld's work that lies behind that of Nietzsche. Nietzsche's work however, " is unique; he covers a range of issues far greater than the social and psychological area of interest to La Rochefoucauld. To the cynicism typical of the genre, Nietzsche brings a new dimension by his combination of nihilistic energy with historical consciousness. Finally, he expands the genre to include not merely insights, but argument as well.":xix The aphorism "allows for a loosely organised, shifting whole containing specific ideas but no iron-clad explanation for everything, - [it] constitutes the style that best represents his philosophy.":xiv
This book represents the beginning of Nietzsche's "middle period", with a break from German Romanticism and from Wagner and with a definite positivist slant. Reluctant to construct a systematic philosophy, this book comprises more a collection of debunkings of unwarranted assumptions than an interpretation and "contains the seeds of concepts crucial to Nietzsche's later philosophy, such as the need to transcend conventional Christian morality";:back page he uses his perspectivism and the idea of the will to power as explanatory devices, though the latter remains less developed than in his later thought.
Of First and Last Things
In this first section Nietzsche deals with metaphysics, specifically its origins as relating to dreams, the dissatisfaction with oneself, and language as well.
On the History of Moral Feelings
This section, named in honor of his friend Paul Rée's On the Origin of Moral Sensations, Nietzsche challenges the Christian idea of good and evil, as it was philosophized by Arthur Schopenhauer.
Excerpt: "At the waterfall. When we see a waterfall, we think we see freedom of will and choice in the innumerable turnings, windings, breakings of the waves; but everything is necessary; each movement can be calculated mathematically. Thus it is with human actions; if one were omniscient, one would be able to calculate each individual action in advance, each step in the progress of knowledge, each error, each act of malice. To be sure the acting man is caught in his illusion of volition; if the wheel of the world were to stand still for a moment and an omniscient, calculating mind were there to take advantage of this interruption, he would be able to tell into the farthest future of each being and describe every rut that wheel will roll upon. The acting man's delusion about himself, his assumption that free will exists, is also part of the calculable mechanism."
From the Soul of Artists and Writers
Nietzsche uses this section to denounce the idea of divine inspiration in art, claiming that great art is the result of hard work, not a higher power or "genius". This can be interpreted as a veiled attack on his former friend Wagner (a strong believer in genius), though Nietzsche never mentions him by name, instead simply using the term "the artist".
Signs of Higher and Lower Culture
Here Nietzsche criticizes Darwin, as he frequently does, as naive and derivative of Hobbes and early English economists and without an account of life from the "inside" (and consider in this light Darwin's own introduction to the first edition of Origin) (consider also Nietzsche's critique to the effect that Darwinism, as typically understood, is trading in a new version of the Providential):
"Wherever progress is to ensue, deviating natures are of greatest importance. Every progress of the whole must be preceded by a partial weakening. The strongest natures retain the type, the weaker ones help to advance it. Something similar also happens in the individual. There is rarely a degeneration, a truncation, or even a vice or any physical or "moral" loss without an advantage somewhere else. In a warlike and restless clan, for example, the sicklier man may have occasion to be alone, and may therefore become quieter and wiser; the one-eyed man will have one eye the stronger; the blind man may see deeper inwardly, and certainly hear better. To this extent, the famous theory of the survival of the fittest does not seem to be the only viewpoint from which to explain the progress of strengthening of a man or of a race."
(See Twilight of the Idols for more of Nietzsche's critique of Darwin.)
Nietzsche writes of the “free spirit” or “free thinker” (Freigeist), and his role in society, a sort of proto-Übermensch, forming the basis of a concept he extensively explores in his later work Thus Spoke Zarathustra. A free spirit is one who goes against the herd, and “onwards along the path of wisdom” in order to better society. "Better," for Nietzsche, appears to mean ordered toward the production of rare genius and is hardly to be confused with what "a newspaper reader," as Nietzsche might put it, would expect. The essential thing to keep in mind in considering Zarathustra, of course, is that Nietzsche presents Zarathustra as failing.
Man in Society and Women and Child
These two sections are made up of very short aphorisms on men's, women's and the child’s nature or their "evolution," in Nietzsche's subtle, anti-Darwinian sense.
Man Alone with Himself
Like sections six and seven, Nietzsche’s aphorisms here are mostly short, but also poetic and at times could be interpreted as semi-autobiographical, in anticipation of the next volumes: “He who has come only in part to a freedom of reason cannot feel on earth otherwise than as a wanderer."
Nietzsche also distinguishes the obscurantism of the metaphysicians and theologians from the more subtle obscurantism of Kant's critical philosophy and modern philosophical skepticism, claiming that obscurantism is that which obscures existence rather than obscures ideas alone: "The essential element in the black art of obscurantism is not that it wants to darken individual understanding but that it wants to blacken our picture of the world, and darken our idea of existence."