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Friedrich Nietzsche was born in 1844 and died in 1900. He was a prodigy son and grandson of two bishops and fervently religious at least until the age of 12. When he attended university in 1864, however, he had ceased to believe in the existence of God. In 1869 he became a professor in philology at Basel University only 24 years old.
All his life he suffered from bad health but due to more severe illness from 1871 and a desire to study philosophy he resigned his university post in 1879 and began wandering around Europe on a meagre pension to live and write. In January 1889 he went insane and was cared for by his mother and later his sister, the nazi sympathiser and anti-semitic, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche (1846-1935), until his death.
Nietzsche touches upon a wealth of topics in his writings but never proposed a grand philosophy structure onto which his thoughts could be pinned. He has been criticized for this lack of a coherent philosophy but this misses his point. Nietzsche doesn’t want you to copy his thoughts ad lib. He wants you to think and question everything critically. Even Nietzsche!
Science and Truth
For Nietzsche, the concept of truth is a lot more complex than it may appear at first sight. Nietzsche was not anti-rationalism or against science but he rejects the idea that truth exists and, if it does, that it may be ascertained by man. Knowledge simply rests on something strange reduced to something familiar. Says Nietzsche:
What is familiar means what we are used to so that we no longer marvel at it, our everyday, some rule in which we are stuck, anything at all in which we feel at home. Look, isn’t our need for knowledge precisely this need for the familiar, the will to uncover under everything strange, unusual, and questionable something that no longer disturbs us? Is it not the instinct of fear that bids us to know? And is the jubilation of those who attain knowledge not the jubilation of the restoration of a sense of security?
Hence, our so called explanations are merely descriptions. They may be better than their predecessors but explain no more. This should come as no surprise, says Nietzsche, after all:
How could we possibly explain anything? We operate only with things that do not exist: lines, planes, bodies, atoms, divisible time spans, divisible spaces. How should explanations be at all possible when we first turn everything into an image, our image!
In other words, we fool ourselves when we propose we can base anything on facts or rigid structures: “Truth are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are.”
Yet, our need for truth affirms itself to such a degree that the principle, the faith, the conviction finds expression in this: Nothing is needed more than truth, and in relation to it everything else has only second-rate value.
But why this unconditional will to truth, asks Nietzsche, when:
It is nothing more than a moral prejudice that truth is worth more than semblance; it is, in fact, the worst proved supposition in the world … In fact, what even necessitates the assumption that there is any meaningful contrast between ‘true’ and ‘false?’ Is it not enough to assume degrees of apparentness or lighter or darker shades and appearances of the apparent – different valeurs to speak in the language of painters? Why should the world that concerns us – not be a fiction?
Dionysus vs. Apollo
Nietzsche made a distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. In Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus are sons of Zeus. Apollo was the god of light representing rational thinking, order and harmony, whereas, Dionysus was the god of wine representing intoxication, ecstatic emotion, irrationality and chaos.
Nietzsche believes that these two aspects were originally both parts of the Greek drama, but with Socrates, Greek taste began to change in favor of dialectics. This was the wisdom of the plebs, the wisdom one resorted to when one could not rely on authority or commands as exhibited in the pre-classical Greek tale, like, the Odyssey. It is a self-defense, says Nietzsche, for anyone who no longer have other weapons. As such, reason became the tool for man to overcome himself since he could not assert himself in his instinctual, dominant manner. And this, according to Nietzsche, had fatal consequences because reason now ruled over man’s instincts like a tyrant.
The moralism of the Greek philosophers from Plato on is pathologically conditioned; so is their esteem of dialectics. Reason-virtue-happiness, that means merely that one must imitate Socrates and counter the dark appetites with a permanent daylight – the daylight of reason. One must be clever, clear, bright at any price; any concession to the instincts, to the unconscious, leads downward.
But, says Nietzsche, rationality at any price negates life. Consequently, Socrates and, ultimately, Christianity, which is but a religious extension of Greek philosophy, was a misunderstanding.
Moreover, the Greeks believed that the human senses deceived man and that behind the mere appearance was the real being. Thus, idealism was born and with it, subsequently, Christianity’s belief in an afterlife.
But all these philosophical inventions and religious maxims are hostile to life, negating man’s instinct and natural impulses – no matter, how fine we dress them up in moral reasoning. As such, the practice of the Christian church is hostile to life by attacking the natural, human roots of instinct and passion.
God is Dead
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I seek God! I seek God!. . . Whither is God?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers . . . God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him …” The madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke and went out. “I came too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet.”
So goes one of the most famous quotes by Nietzsche. It is a statement with wide implications. That God is dead means that God must have been “alive” as a human idea that is no longer supported. Since, historically, God has been viewed as the source of value, a Godless world then is a world without objective value. Moreover, everything that is based on the faith in God also dies, eg. Christianity and with that all Christian morality.
This is a monumental consequence to fathom and Nietzsche doubted that even the most astute of people could comprehend what this event really meant and how much had to collapse now that the faith on which it was built had been undermined. For example, the whole of our European morality.
Still, Nietzsche encouraged the free spirit to welcome, as he did, this opportunity to rid Europe of Christian morality since be believed Christian morality suppressed life, especially, Christianity’s hypocrisy and its slave morality.
As for Christian hypocrisy, this was clear in the preachings of the Gospel. For Nietzsche, Jesus was a rebel, a political criminal fighting against the established order and an inspiration to action. The church from Paul and onwards, however, focused on faith over action thereby corrupting Jesus’ teachings.
Moreover, Christianity nurtured the idea of a state of judgement in the afterlife, in which the non-believers would be punished. Here again, Nietzsche found that the church, by sanctioning the ideas of judgement and revenge, had betrayed a fundamental part of Jesus’ message which was that of love and forgiveness – not punishment and revenge. It also betrays all Christian talk of love and forgiveness as but a mask covering the hatred and blood lust that is really at the heart of Christianity.
But, perhaps, Nietzsche’s teachings of herd or slave morality more than anything encapsulates his most famous critique of Christianity.
Master and Slave Morality
Nietzsche admired the Hellenic drama. Partly, because it depicted the gods as fallible and humanlike (aside from their godly powers) and, partly, because Greek drama didn’t make the mistake of separating humanity from nature. In reality, says Nietzsche, there is no such separation. Man is wholly nature and those of his abilities which are terrifying and considered inhuman may be the fertile soil out of which alone all humanity can grow.
The truth is hard, says Nietzsche. Every higher culture was begun by humans with a natural nature, barbarians in every sense of the word, predators, still in possession of unbroken wills and passion for power that threw itself upon all weaker races or cultures. Says Nietzsche:
Mutually refraining from wounding each other, from violence, and from exploitation, and setting one’s will on the same level as others – these can in a certain crude sense become good habits among individuals [that are equal]. However as soon as people wanted to take this principle further and, where possible, establish it as the basic principle of society, it immediately showed itself for what it is, as the willed denial of life, as the principle of disintegration and decay …
Any body [and any healthy aristocracy] has to … do to other bodies all those things which the individuals in it refrains from doing to each other: it will have to be the living will to power, it will grow, grab things around it, pull to itself, and want to acquire predominance – not because of some morality or immorality, but because it is alive and because living is simply will to power.
The exploitation is not part of a depraved or incomplete and primitive society: it belongs in the essential nature of what is living, as a basic organic function: it is a consequence of the real will to power. Assuming that this is something new as a theory – it is nonetheless in reality the fundamental fact of history: We should at least be honest with ourselves to this extent!
But as Greek and Roman society developed so did two distinct moralities. Among the ruling class a master morality developed for whom “good” was the egocentric, the sublime and elevated states of man. This “proud man” despises all beings that do not adhere to such a morality as weak and despicable, as “bad”.
Among the possessed a very different slave morality developed. Being the enslaved and disenfranchised they had to invent another world from whose point of view they could see the master morality as “evil” and themselves as the righteous and “good.” Hence, the slave morality, or the Judaeo-Christian morality, developed out of a “No” to master morality and to everything on earth that represents the ascending tendency of life, to that which has turned out well, to power, to beauty, and to self-affirmation.
In its place, slave morality emphasises pity, the kind, helping hand, the warm heart, patience, hard work, humility, and chastity for these are the only tools for the possessed to survive the pressures of life. Moreover, the slave always regards himself in the eyes of others; what value he has is the one assigned to him by his master. This is the natural consequence of the herd man awaiting a meaning (since he does not create one himself) only to instantly submit to it, regardless, of whether it is “good” or unreasonable.
This slave morality is the Judaeo-Christian morality in which all Western philosophy and religion was born. That it is a morality of “No” is perfectly illustrated in the ten commandments that revolves around what thou shall not. For the ruling class happiness equals action and assertion. For the ruled class happiness equals inactivity, tranquility, peace and quiet, sedation and passivity.
Nietzsche despises the herd morality and the way it turns values upside down by admiring what should be considered despicable. Says Nietzsche in Genealogy of Morals:
Now they will have me know that not only are they better than the mightiest, the rulers of earth whose saliva they must lick (not out of fear, oh no, not from fear at all – no, only because God commands to honor all nobility) – that not only are they better, but also that they ‘are better off’ or, at least, that in the future they will be better off. Enough. Enough! I cannot stand anymore. Bad air. Bad air. This workshop where ideals are fabricated – it seems to me the stench is of foul lies.
Overcoming, the Overman and the Last Man
A central theme in Nietzsche’s writings is his ambition for man to overcome already existing values both on an individual and a collective level – and for mankind as a whole. The ultimate embodiment of this overcoming is the übermensch or overman (sometimes referred to as Superman).
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche introduces the character Zarathustra that tries to convince the common people of the overman:
I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? … What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman …You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape…
Behold, I teach you the overman. The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.”
But the common people do not understand Zarathustra and so he resorts to describing the last man. The last man is the embodiment of the person that has completely succumbed to his surroundings. No longer able to “shoot the arrow of his longing” and his soil so poor and domesticated that no tall tree will be able to grow in the last man is a sorry specimen of a human being. Yes, he lives longest because his race is as ineradicable as the flea-beetle but he has nothing left in him; no chaos to give “birth to a star.” Instead, he chooses “a little poison now and then to make for agreeable dreams; and much poison in the end, for an agreeable death.”
Despite this unflattering characterisation Zarathustra is interrupted by “the clamor and delight of the crowd. ‘Give us this last man, O Zarathustra,’ they shouted, ‘turn us into these last men…!’”
Nietzsche’s contempt for the common man could hardly be more explicit.
The Eternal Recurrence and Amor fati
Another important idea in Nietzsche’s works is the idea of the eternal recurrence :
How, if some day or night a demon were to sneak after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you, ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything immeasurably small or great in your life must return to you – all in the same succession and sequence …’ Would you now throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or did you once experiment a tremendous moment when you would have answered him, ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more godly.’
For Nietzsche this was the greatest of thoughts that would have an impact on how you perceive yourself and how you live your life. If one is able to answer the question in the affirmative the accompanying feeling of joy, Nietzsche thought, is the formula for the greatness of the human being. Importantly, the link between the eternal recurrence and the overman is that the overman is one who will embrace the doctrine: who can look to his own life and wish to relive it again and again for infinity. It is an unconditional acceptance of existence and love of one’s fate (Amor fati), a saying ‘Yes’ with devotion to everything in this life – unlike the weak and the church who look to the next life for hope.
The Will to Power
Scattered throughout Nietzsche’s texts one finds references to the will to power. In typical Nietzsche fashion, however, he doesn’t give us an account of any ‘doctrine’ of the will to power. Still, some Nietzsche scholars consider the will to power a central idea of his and because of his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche’s manipulation of his works it became a principle the Nazis embraced. The philosopher Martin Heidegger, for instance, saw the will to power as Nietzsche’s real philosophy and even stated that the Overman is embodied in the Nazi SS tank commander!
The Objective Interpretation
A few examples from Nietzsche’s works may illuminate the concept:
What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.
In The Will to Power the world is described as a “monster of energy,” not growing bigger or smaller, enclosed by nothingness and “as a force throughout, as a play of forces and waves of forces … This world is the will to power – and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power – and nothing besides!”
These statements may suggest Nietzsche believed that there existed a will to power that governed the world as an underlying metaphysical, universal and natural force. The problem with this objective interpretation is that Nietzsche constantly warned of engaging in metaphysical speculation and it seems odd that he would then suggest a metaphysical principle to be the foundation of everything.
The Subjective Interpretation
In the chapter “On Self-overcoming” in ”Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche writes:
But wherever I found the living, there I heard also the speech on obedience. Whatever lives, obeys … he who cannot obey himself is commanded. That is the nature of the living … Where I found the living, there I found will to power; and even in the will of those who serve I found the will to be master.
The title of this chapter implies that rather than conceiving the will to power as some underlying principle of the world, it can also be seen first and foremost as the power over one’s self, the power to overcome or transcend oneself. In this light, the will to power is when we say ‘Yes’ to life, when we overcome our conditions, create our own values and meaning and go on the offensive against mediocrity and mere self-preservation.
This is the subjective interpretation of the will to power. The world reflects the self and the self recognises its role within the world. Nietzsche saw this as a dangerous enterprise – life and sanity threatening – because most people, Nietzsche believed, prefer to live life herd-like and unthinking, rather than confront their place in the world. In this light, what is understood by “truth,” then, is whatever overcomes the world, whatever view of the world prevails. Truth is a mental construct; it is what is psychologically bearable.
Music, Dance, Laughter and Gaiety
For Nietzsche playfulness, music and dance are central to life and should be central to any philosophy that concerns life. After all, is it not life’s playful and fun moments that add to the wonder of life? And is it not often that life’s most profound moments occur during laughter and playfulness?
I would not know what the spirit of a philosopher might wish more to be than a good dancer. For the dance is his ideal, also his art, and finally also his only piety, his ´service of God.´
So says Nietzsche in The Gay Science adding:
We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors – walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful. Our first questions about the value of a book, of a human being, or a musical composition are: Can they walk? Or even more, can they dance?
In the great majority, the intellect is a clumsy, gloomy, creaking machine that is difficult to start. They call it ‘taking the matter seriously‘ when they want to work with this machine and think well, How burdensome they must find good thinking! The lovely human beat always seems to lose its good spirits when it thinks well; it becomes ‘serious.’ And where laughter and gaiety are found, thinking does not amount to anything – that is the prejudice of this serious beast against all ‘gay science.’ – Well then, let us prove that this is a prejudice.
Nietzsche’s emphasis on play, music and dance reflects his overall mission which is one of creativity. He urges the courageous man to become an artist, to create his own values and not take life too seriously, attached to notions of universal good and evil as if we can only be forgiven for living if we steadfastly follow the good. This is the spirit of gravity which sees life as a burden to be borne. Instead, Zarathustra urges us to learn to love ourselves (not an easy task, he admits) and to see life not as a test or a burden, but as a joy in which we create our own good and our own evil. Rather than look for the only way to live, we should be able to say, “This is my way; where is yours?”
Nietzsche in Existential Perspective
Nietzsche is rather like a magician. Elegantly he holds out a key in one hand only to use the other hand to make it disappear and reappear somewhere else. Whenever you focus on the key or try to grab it it vanishes in thin air. This can make him a puzzling and frustrating read because he constantly forces you to consider what you’ve just read and if you agree. But it is also inspiring and encouraging. Nietzsche is not out to mold you in his image. He is out to mold you in your own!
Throughout his work Nietzsche emphasizes time and time again that you create your own truth; that no authority can decide for you what is the truth. This is unfathomable for the herd mind but a call to action for all creative and free spirits and artists, although, it can also mean a desolate life. This was certainly true for Nietzsche that was often utterly lonely, especially, in the years leading up to his insanity in 1889. Still, Nietzsche said in 1887:
In media vita [in mid-life]: No, life has not disappointed me. On the contrary, I find it truer, more desirable and mysterious every year – ever since the day when the great liberator came to me: the idea that life could be an experiment of the seeker for knowledge and not a duty, not a calamity, not trickery. – And knowledge itself: let it be something else for others; for example, a bed to rest on, or the way to such a bed, or a diversion, or a form of leisure – for me it is a world of dangers and victories in which heroic feelings, too, find places to dance and play. “Life as a means to knowledge” – with this principle in one’s heart one can live not only boldly but even gaily, and laugh gaily too. And who knows how to laugh anyway and live well if he does not first know a good deal about war and victory?”
And even when we suffer, Nietzsche emphasizes, we learn more from pain than we can ever learn from pleasure. Hence, pity is a despicable reaction. Says Nietzsche in The Gay Science:
It is the very essence of the emotion of pity that it strips away from the suffering of others whatever is distinctively personal … One simply knows nothing of the whole inner sequence and intricacies that are distress for me or for you. The whole economy of my soul and the balance effected by “distress,” the way new springs and needs break open, the way in which old wounds are healing, the way whole periods of past are shed – all such things that may be involved in distress are of no concern to our dear pitying friends; they wish to help and have no thought of the personal necessity of distress, although terrors, deprivations, impoverishments, midnights, adventures, risks, and blunders are as necessary for me and for you as their opposites. It never occurs to them that, to put it mystically, the path to own’s own heaven always leads through the voluptuousness of one’s own hell. No, the “religion of pity” (or “the heart”) commands them to help, and they believe that they have helped most when they have helped most quickly.
Basically everything that is great – great movies, art, people, etc. etc., everything – all that has come through people being willing to suffer for it. Think of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the gym, Michelangelo’s grueling hours upon hours of practice, Nikola Tesla’s willingness to go against the grain. All those are a greatness born out of being willing to, and affirming the suffering needed to get there.
Conversely, Nietzsche scorns the modern worker that is simply yearning for security:
Phew! To believe that higher pay could abolish the essence of their misery – I mean their impersonal serfdom! Phew! To be talked into thinking that an increase in this impersonality, within the machinelike workings of a new society, could transform the shame of slavery into a virtue! Phew! To have a price for which one remains a person no longer but becomes a gear … Where is your inner worth when you no longer know what it means to breathe freely? When you no longer have the slightest control over yourselves? When you all too frequently become sick of yourselves, as of a stale drink?
No! – says Nietzsche, for the free spirit there is but one way:
The secret of the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously. Build your cities under Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors, as long as you cannot be the rulers and owners, you lovers of knowledge. Soon the age will be past when you could be satisfied to live like shy deer, hidden in the woods! At long last the pursuit of knowledge will reach out for its due; it will want to rule and own, and you with it!
Nietzsche is famous for penning aphorisms. This was in part due to his appalling health that necessitated writing in short sections but he also turned his affliction into an advantage. Through writing he had learned that the aphorism is a provocation, a springboard, and a stimulus to further and deeper questioning. It also leaves it to the reader to make up his own mind and fill in the blanks.
Below I have quoted a few that can serve as examples of his aphoristic style.
The disappointed speaker. ‘I listened for sympathy and heard only appraisal.’
There are no moral phenomena, only a moral interpretation of the phenomena…
Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster. And if you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
Madness of the individual is something rare – but among groups, parties, folks, ages it is the rule.
If we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how.
What has become perfect, all that is ripe – wants to die… But all that suffers wants to live, that it may become ripe and joyous and longing – longing for what is farther, higher, brighter.
Limits of our hearing.– One hears only those questions for which one is able to find answers.
The most dangerous point of view.– What I do or do not do now is as important for everything that is yet to come as is the greatest event of the past: in this tremendous perspective of effectiveness all actions appear equally great and small.
What makes one heroic? Going out to meet at the same time one’s highest suffering and one’s highest hope.
The history of every day.– What is the history of every day in your case? Look at your habits that constitute it: are they the product of innumerable little cowardices and lazinesses or of your courage and inventive reason? However different these two cases are, people might very well praise you equally and you might actually profit them equally this way and that. But praise and profit and respectability may suffice those who merely wish to have a good conscience – but not you who try the heart and reins and make even conscience an object of science.
Critique of Nietzsche
One may criticise a number of Nietzche’s positions. Certainly, his views on women are a product of his problematic relations to women (he was badly burnt by the 17 years younger Lou Salome (1861-1937) in 1882 and for a while considered suicide while dulling his pain with opium), although, he is also one of the first philosophers to recognise and take up feminist issues. Still, aphorisms, such as, “When you go to women, do not forget thy whip” or that women daily become “more hysterical and unfit to do their first and foremost duty, that of breeding and raising children” are also a product of their time and haven’t aged well.
Even more importantly, however, one may question his unrelenting conviction that man’s natural state is one of cruelty and barbarism. His conviction is built on the observation that history proves it. But whose to say that history simply proves that man is capable of doing whatever he deems necessary given sufficient misguidance? Whose to judge that our inner most conviction is, still, not that of oneness, understanding and forgiveness but that it can fault terribly due to erroneous conceptions of immortality, low self-esteem or misguided attempts of merging with our surroundings or something other?
His assumption is not only bold but also problematic since it narrows and determines the spectrum of human possibilities for socialisation. If we accept his view that empathy and respect is only possible among equals this raises the question whether, as a society or a species we should simply accept that the only justifiable society is one of masters, slaves and philosophers? Is that our most ambitious goal for the übermensch? If so, it seems reasonable to ask, then, what is our most enduring feeling – that of love or that of hate because of love lost? Undoubtedly, Nietzsche would reply that any such feeling is subjugated to the will to power but, again, one may object to this position. Which is exactly what Nietzsche would like you to do – think and make up your own mind!
I hope this introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche has intrigued you to learn more about him. And if you want to dive into his works Thus Spoke Zarathustra is hist most famous work but I would recommend starting out with Twilight of the Idols that contains a succint summary of many of his key ideas. Also The Antichrist contains Nietzsche’s most acerbic critique of Christianity (both are found in Walter Kaufmann’s “Portable Nietzsche”). If you like these books I would still recommend Beyond Good and Evil and The Gay Science before embarking on Zarathustra that is very different in style from his other works. Also you might want to check out Walter Kaufmann’s writings about Nietzsche or Sue Prideaux’ biography on Nietzsche “I Am Dynamite.”
To learn more about another atheistic writer that was very inspired by Nietzsche please find here a link to my article on The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus that in many ways expand on Nietzsche’s thoughts. And learn about a very theistic approach to the same themes in the article on Søren Kierkegaard. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard never knew of one another but would surely have accepted the challenge.
The Skeleton-Man Show Death: The High Price of Living
In my new show Death: The High Price of Living I introduce the audience to the existential tradition. You can find more information about the show here that is specifically targeted educational institutions and companies, for instance, as a fun and engaging event at the yearly company art club assembly.