Who Is Friedrich Nietzsche?
“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher born in 1844 in Röcken, in what was then Prussia. His father, a Lutheran pastor, died when Nietzsche was five years old. As a young man, Nietzsche wrote poetry, composed music, and studied Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and French. He took a particular interest in counter-culture poets like Hölderlin and Ortlepp, an early indication of his rejection of commonly-held values. Nietzsche is perhaps best-known for his rejection of conventional morality and religious values. He came to view God as a creation of man, not the other way around, and saw faith as antithetical to the pursuit of truth. In contemporary philosophy and literary studies, his conviction that there are no truths (facts) but only interpretations has had a lasting influence:
“Against [empiricism], which halts at [observable] phenomena—‘There are only facts’—I would say, no, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact ‘in itself’: perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing.” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power.
In 1864, Nietzsche lasted a single semester of his theology at the University of Bonn before abandoning his plans to be a minister and focussing on classical philology (the study of the historical development of classical languages and texts). Under Friedrich Ritschl at the University of Leipzig, Nietzsche completed his studies in philology. Incredibly, at 24 and without a PhD, Nietzsche was offered a professorship in classical philology at the University of Basel, Switzerland, in 1869.
Over the next decade, Nietzsche became somewhat disenchanted with the “arm-chair” stance of classical philology. Instead, he became increasingly interested with how the study of antiquity could provide psychological insights relevant to contemporary problems. By the end of the 1870s, he had left the University of Basel due to major health issues including migraines and indigestion. In 1878, Nietzsche wrote Human, All Too Human, which laid the foundations for future works. Through a series of aphorisms, he argues against the idea of God and generally against any non-naturalistic views of ethics and aesthetics. Ideas of “good” or “bad” are portrayed as social constructs, whether applied to actions or aesthetic creations such as music or paintings.
Nietzsche never married, but did propose to Lou Andreas-Salomé three times. After three rejections, Nietzsche became very isolated and extremely ill. Taking large doses of opium and chloral hydrate, his writing took on darker and more controversial tones. He wrote the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, his first book containing the famous phrase “God is dead,” in 1983. His open and extreme atheism alienated him further and made him unhireable at German universities, with even the University of Leipzig rejecting him. Between 1878 and 1888 Nietzsche completed a total of twelve books, but in 1889, he descended into psychiatric illness with depression, possibly caused by dementia. He spent the next ten years in the care of medical professionals and his sister, finally dying from a stroke on August 25, 1900.
Among Nietzsche’s most influential ideas was his rejection of traditional European morality and religion. Since the Enlightenment, philosophers had followed in the footsteps of thinkers like Kant in trying to provide a reason-based foundation for Christian morality. Nietzsche rejected this as a foolish undertaking. His claim that “God is dead” came from his observation that believers in Christianity were increasingly abandoning their faith, and thereby leaving the foundations of European collective morality to crumble. Nietzsche didn’t think we could simply scramble to replace the foundation, but that to actually build a new collective morality, everything would have to be examined, ripped apart, then rebuilt from the ground up.
Central to Nietzsche’s beliefs about morality is his belief in the dichotomy between “slave” and “master” morality. Nietzsche believed that the idea of what is “good” is often used as a way of achieving power. According to Nietzsche, master morality flourished in the ancient, pre-monotheistic religious world and was characterized by an association of the “good” with happiness, wealth, and power, and “bad” with weakness, unhappiness, and poverty. In master morality, the idea of “good” is more focussed in what is good for the individual, as opposed to a more abstract idea of “good” as a moral value. “Slave morality” was a reaction to master morality. Associated with Judeo-Christian morality, slave morality reframes the moral dichotomy as one of “good” and “evil,” where good is associated with meekness, asceticism, charity, mysticism, and faith, and evil is associated with selfishness, wealth, materialism, and the pursuit of power.
Nietzsche rejected both of these types of morality, and deemed that the tension between the two (the fact that they are basically inversions of one another) was responsible for the nihilism he thought was rampant in Europe. He felt that the attempt in slave morality to make all people equal was stunting society by making exceptional people ashamed of their abilities. Nietzsche felt that while prescribed morality was effective in keeping the masses organized and in check, exceptional people should shrug it off and make their own morality. Overall, he advocated the return to master morality, because in his mind it provided a more powerful and autonomous framework for ethics than slave morality. Also, unlike its counterpart, it did not require a religious framework, a necessity when “God is Dead.”
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. “ Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125
This isn’t some kind of gleeful Richard Dawkins style atheist gotcha moment for Nietzsche, but is a wider commentary on the state of the foundations of morality and knowledge in an increasingly secular Europe. The God that had been the foundation upon which all European morality and metaphysics had been based for millennia was increasingly brought into question, by the Enlightenment and the accompanying trends toward secularization. As much as Nietzsche balked against the simple morality of religious institutions, the death of God entailed for him the potential for an extremely dangerous widespread loss of meaning. He saw the threat of a pessimistic passive nihilism that would result from people’s realization that their value systems and beliefs have had the rug pulled out from under them. The danger is that people will stop searching for meaning, and will simply acquiesce to the meaningless of existence.
On the other hand, however, Nietzsche saw great opportunity in this collapse of religious ethics and metaphysics. Humanity would prove its strength if it could confront nihilism and find a way through it to forge new truths, meanings, and ideals. One way Nietzsche suggests we fight the malaise is to do things that make us feel powerful. Honestly, it gets kind of weird:
“What is good? — All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad? — All that proceeds from weakness. What is happiness? — The feeling that power increases — that a resistance is overcome.” The Antichrist, Section 2, Friedrich Nietzsche
This “will to power,” on the more charitable interpretations, is to be seen as an internal process that involves the summoning of the inner strength needed to approach the world with firm resolve. That said, Nietzsche also makes rather disturbing comments like:
“The weak and ill–constituted shall perish: first principle of our philanthropy. And one shall help them to do so.” (Antichrist, Section 2)
Another way Nietzsche saw of dealing with the creeping nihilism was affirmation. He lays out the meaning of this very clearly in The Gay Science:
“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: someday I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.” Nietzsche, The Gay Science
This affirmation of life can form the basis of a value system in that it will have us tend towards experiences and activities that lend themselves to affirmation.
One of the few virtues that Nietzsche wholly promotes as withstanding nihilism is truth or honesty. Truth allows us to authentically affirm life, not just affirm some idea of what we think life should be, but to affirm life as it really is (“Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…but love it” — Ecce Homo, Section 10). Truth is also a form of power. The ability to handle the truth, to deal in honesty, is reserved for those who have the power to do so.
The type of illusion or fiction that Nietzsche does encourage is what we find in art. Nietzsche was a big fan of art and its ability to make the undesirable, ugly things in the world beautiful. In Nietzsche’s view, art was the antidote to the sometimes glaring and challenging realities of truth. In The Birth of Tragedy, he examines in depth how the Greek tragedies took the most difficult and terrible experiences of life and made them into things of beauty. Without art to help us deal with truth, truth would become “utterly unbearable… [and] would lead to nausea and suicide.” (The Gay Science, 107)
In his mission to point out the crisis of nihilism facing the Western world, Nietzsche placed himself in the position of having to offer solutions to some very big problems. His work has had an enormous effect upon the world, in no small part because certain elements of his philosophy were adopted by the Nazi party, who took his reflections on power as the ultimate good to arrive at conclusions that Nietzsche certainly would have detested (he was strongly opposed to the anti-Semitism he saw in his own time).
Nietzsche certainly seems to have foreseen the crisis of meaning in the Western world. Many of his solutions to this problem, however, have proven somewhat ill-conceived, and his work certainly left itself open to ugly interpretations used to support malignant actions. Nietzsche is perhaps best read with the understanding that he was a man who had big ideas, many good, but some of which reflect a mind increasingly ravaged by psychiatric illness. This is not to discount his analysis, but to caution against wholeheartedly adopting his world view. If some things he says don’t make sense or seem downright dangerous, the problem may have more to to with Nietzsche than you.
The Gay Science (1882)
This is Nietzsche’s most personal work, blending philosophy and poetry in its exploration of God, power, truth, and art. It is in this book that Nietzsche first stated “God is dead.”
This philosophical novel explores the death of God and further develops the idea of the Übermensch, or the self-mastered individual, introduced in The Gay Science.
On the Genealogy of Morality (1887)
This is the book where Nietzsche fleshes out his analysis of morality as a power struggle. The ideas of slave and master morality, and the rejection of Judeo-Christian moral systems is developed in this book.
Ecce Homo (1888)
The last book Nietzsche completed before his mental breakdown, Ecce Homo is an interesting mix of seemingly tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation and philosophy. Nietzsche is examining his own life through this book. A fascinating mix of self-examination and philosophy, it is a truly unique book.
[*] Nietzsche’s idea of loving life, all of it, is a compelling one, but easier said than done. Try to reflect on a bad, hurtful or confusing experience in your life that seems wholly negative. Are there ways in which this event has positively affected you? Is there a way to see this experience as integral to your life?
[*] Nietzsche believed art provided a necessary reprieve from the intensity of truth. Can you think of pieces of art or music that have been particularly meaningful? How does that art or music interact to the realities of your life? Is there a connection between it and the truths of life you find most disturbing?
[*] For Nietzsche truth and honesty are paramount to living a meaningful life. How have you lied to yourself or others recently? How free are you from deception and self-deception? Are there lies you tell yourself that you’d like to overcome?
“The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.”
“And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.”
“The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.”
“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”
“Here the ways of men divide. If you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe; if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.”