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. Note the style: reluctant to construct a systemic philosophy, Nietzsche composed these works as a series of several hundred aphorisms, ranging in length from a single line to a few pages. This book comprises more a collection of debunkings of unwarranted assumptions than an interpretation, though it offers some elements of Nietzsche's thought in his arguments: 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.
"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.
Here Nietzsche attacks religious worship, specifically Christianity, going so far as to say that “Christianity wants to destroy, shatter, stun, intoxicate.”
Nietzsche uses this section to go against the idea of divine inspiration in art, claiming great art is the result of hard work, not a higher power or “genius.” This can be interpreted as a subliminal 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.”
Here Nietzsche criticizes social Darwinism:
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 will see deeper inwardly, and certainly hear better. To this extent, the famous theory of the survival of the fittest does not seem to me to be the only viewpoint from which to explain the progress of strengthening of a man or of a race.
Nietzsche writes of the “free spirit” or “free thinker” (Freigeist), and his role in society. This is an early form of the concept of the “superman” or “overman” (Übermensch), later explored in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. A free spirit is one who goes against tradition, and “onwards along the path of wisdom” in order to better society.
These two sections are made up of mostly very short aphorisms on man’s and women and child’s respective roles in society. While section six is relatively mild, section seven furthers Nietzsche’s reputation for misogyny, writing that “women are so much more personal than objective.” He also believes that free spirits do not marry and “prefer to fly alone.”
Here Nietzsche studies power in a state, and speaks strongly against war and nationalism. He also speaks on Europe’s Jews, worrying that “in the literature of nearly all present-day nations…there is an increase in the literary misconduct that leads the Jews to the slaughterhouse, as scapegoats for every possible public and private misfortune.” He continues, saying that they have “had the most sorrowful history of all peoples, and to whom we owe the noblest human being (Christ), the purest philosopher (Spinoza), the mightiest book, and the most effective code in the world.” Though not anti-Semitic, this would eventually be one of his works taken out of context and reinterpreted by the Nazis to paint Nietzsche as an early philosopher of Nazism.
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.”
Within his lifetime, prior to his mental breakdown in 1889, few of Nietzsche’s books sold particularly well, and Human, All Too Human is no exception. The first installment was originally printed in 1,000 copies in 1878, and sold only 120 of these, and still less than half of these by 1886 when it was resold as the complete two-volume set. Though his friendship with Richard Wagner was nearly over, Wagner actually received a signed copy, though he never read it, saying Nietzsche would thank him for this one day. It was first translated into English in 1909 by writer Helen Zimmern as part of a complete edition of Nietzsche’s books in English, but was never translated by Walter Kaufmann when he translated most of Nietzsche’s works into English in the 1950s and ‘60s. Finally, in the 1980s the first part was translated by Marion Faber and completely translated by R.J. Hollingdale the same decade.
Most notoriously, Human, All Too Human was used by archivist Max Oehler, a strong supporter of Hitler, as supposed evidence of Nietzsche’s support for nationalism and anti-Semitism, both of which he writes against. Oehler wrote an entire book, Friedrich Nietzsche und die Deutsche Zukunft, dealing with Nietzsche and his connection to nationalism (specifically National Socialism) and anti-Semitism, using quotes from Human, All Too Human, though out of context. Nietzsche would speak against anti-Semitism in other works, most strongly in The Antichrist : “An anti-Semite is certainly not any more decent because he lies as a matter of principle.” Oehler also had control of Nietzsche’s archive during the Nazi’s rule, which he shared with Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, a Hitler supporter herself, until her death, when he took it over. It wasn’t until much of Walter Kaufmann’s work in the 1950s through the 1970s that Nietzsche was able to shed this connection with nationalism and anti-Semitism.