Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is one of the most important philosophers of the last 200 years. He foresaw the downfall of Europe, even though he died in 1900, and he influenced many thinkers in the 20th century. Heidegger, for instance, published four volumes on Nietzsche. He is commonly seen as an existentialist philosopher, but he can be viewed easily  as a precursor to postmodernity as well. What are Nietzsche’s central ideas, and how relevant is he today?

The  Death  of God

Friedrich Nietzsche wages war against a form of nihilism that, in his view, has grown inside a dead religion. Western philosophy, infused with Christianity, has created the fiction of a metaphysical realm beyond this world, and the idea of an after-life­ that complements and rectifies our current existence. But for Nietzsche, this thinking is “anti-life­.”  The world of reason is an abstraction, it is dead, and has solidified into the concept of God, or otherworldly transcendence. (See his aphorism “The History of an Error.”) Nietzsche traces the damage first and foremost in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as in the philosophies of Plato and Kant. He respects the ancient Greeks, described by Homer and the Athenians of the Golden Age. This forms the background against which he analyzes the developments in Western thinking. In his first book, The Birth of Tragedy,  Nietzsche suggested, ” only as an aesthetic phenomenon  can the world be justified.” Later on, he tells us that “God is dead” and calls on us to stop praying to Jesus: Christian churches are literally the monuments for a dead God, and once people begin to realize it, the foundations of Europe will slowly become undone. He suggests that we turn for direction to ancient thinkers, like the Persian prophet Zarathustra, who teaches us that we should fully embrace the real world we inhabit. Passionate life-affirmation is better than to live in the abstract world of Christian dogmatism or to engage in self-negation, veiled as ethics or philosophy.

Nietzsche is postmodern insofar as he defends a form of “perspectivism”, which is the view that all our knowledge of the world and of ourselves is gleaned through a particular lens. The way we view the world is characteristic for the viewer, but cannot be understood by the subject itself. Existence is necessarily opaque, and rationality cannot overcome it either. Nietzsche’s writings are  located somewhere between philosophy and literature; he speaks in metaphors and evokes warriors, virtues, landscapes and animals, but we never know how much of it is irony or anger. Nietzsche develops a fundamental critique of Western civilization, and he encapsulates it in the ambiguous phrase that “God is dead,” which is also an echo of Hegel and Martin Luther. Nietzsche’s atheism is not nihilism; he rather wants to diagnose the moral corruption of the modem world. He takes aim at Platonic metaphysics that operates with a dualistic conception of the world, which, in his view, causes the rejection of the immediacy and dynamism of human life. After Plato, the search for unity in the experience of human life manifests again in the early Jesus movement. It shapes the development of monotheism, but by then the Pre-Socratic roots have been lost,  Christianity will merge with Platonism, and lead to an even more intense version of dualism. “Christianity is Platonism for the  masses.”

But Nietzsche does not stop here. He claims that reason itself can be an escape from life. The watchword of his philosophy, “nihilism,” has various functions. It is the hammer he uses to destroy the metaphysical edifices of Western philosophy. Similar to Kierkegaard, he diagnoses it in the climate of his times, but detecting it does not make him a nihilist. His thesis is rather that the values we hold are nihilistic, and self-undermining. For him, the ultimate value is life itself. he says that “the highest values are devaluing themselves.” Among these values are truth, religion. and morality.

Nietzsche expresses his philosophy through the reference to the ancient Greeks, as so many German scholars in the nineteenth century did. But Nietzsche aims deeper:  his does not embrace the famous Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle. Nietzsche saw them as “already decadent.” He admired instead the warriors of Homer’s epics and the great Pre-Socratic tragedians. He admires  Heraclitus with  his “dark sayings,” and proclaims: “How they must have suffered to have become so beautiful.”

In Nietzsche’s view, Socrates initiates a “tyranny of reason” and develops the vision of another, “truer” world, in comparison to which this world is a just a shadow. Nietzsche counters it by developing a method that we might call “epistemological nihilism.” He says, for example, “there is no truth” and our greatest “truths are only errors that we cannot give up.” Sometimes he argues like a classical skeptic. except that he rejects the very ground and distinctions on which most skepticism is based. There is no “objectivity” as such, no original or founding acts, no unbiased points of view. We should try to appreciate as many perspectives as possible, and ultimately, theories and philosophical truth claims may dissolve into aesthetic formations. Using Kierkegaard’s schema of the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious modes of life, Nietzsche belongs to the aesthetic perspective. If we subtract his sophisticated rhetoric, Nietzsche’s view of truth is surprisingly pragmatic, almost anticipating later American philosophers.

Nietzsche on Morality

Nietzsche claims to be an “immoralist,” but he probably never committed an immoral act in his life. Nietzsche did not attack morality as such. Rather, he attacks Judeo-Christian morality, which he considers nihilistic. He suggests that Judeo-Christian morality is a “slave morality,” a morality of resentment and fear. “Master” morality, by contrast, is aristocratic and independent, but today, it often appears as “bad conscience.” To Nietzsche, aristocratic morality is based on personal excellence, in contrast to what he sees as the slavishness of certain aspects of Judeo-Christian morality. He also  criticizes the bourgeois morality of Immanuel  Kant and his “categorical  imperative.”

Rather than analyzing moral philosophies in detail, he examines the historical roots as well as the sentiments that come along with morality. Universal principles, says Nietzsche, don’t take into account the vast difference between individuals. If love is extended to everyone – as the New Testament wants – does it still deserve lo be called love? Whether  Christianity, the categorical imperative, or the “herd mentality” of utilitarianism, all universal  principles ignore an old philosophy with great credentials, one of virtue and character. Like Aristotle, Nietzsche  argues that the focus of ethics is on individual character – “what kind of a person am I’?”

Nietzsche develops his thinking on morality in a book with the revealing title “Beyond Good and Evil.” He looks at morality from the point of view of power, which creates two perspectives on morality, the position of the master and the position of the slave. These names indicate both the origins and the temperament of two moral positions. Both master and slave morality refer to historical social categories in the ancient world of Greece and Rome. Master morality originated with the powerful aristocracies of the ancient world; it refers to a mentality of rulers that existed in the periods before Greek democracy flourished. Slave morality originated with the literal slaves and servants of the ancient world, the powerless, those who are deprived, by force or because of their own infirmities, of the possible richness of life, which is mostly enjoyed by the aristocracy. Nietzsche sees a process of decay even in ancient Greece, and he thinks that Aristotle already belongs to a decadent culture, after the “golden age” and the Homeric period of warrior virtues that created the Western world. Master morality is by temperament aristocratic, independent, and compassionate. These virtues of personal excellence (Arete) are the prototype of “good.”

Slave morality is, in contrast, a temperament that grows when one is defeated. It is servile, reactionary, and resentful. It is primarily characterized by its motivation, which is defensive. It view the virtues of the masters as “evil.” It is also vengeful, bitter, and filled with self-loathing. Slave morality considers the denial of desire, abstention. patience, self-sacrifice, and self-denial in general, as “good.” Christian faith, built on the sacrificial death of Jesus, becomes the prime expression of this slave morality, even though the original message of Jesus may have been quite different. At any rate, it is hard to find Jesus in the role Christianity has played over the centuries. From this tradition of slave morality, which also dominates the bourgeois lifestyles of late 19th century Europe, we learn that the good is self-denial. And we are left with two distinct moral types: one based on excellence; the other on self-denial.

Even though the modern age can be characterized as the result of two thousand years of slave morality, the virtues of the masters never disappear. Master morality manifests today in a sublimated form. It appears, for instance, as “bad conscience.” The two types of morality set up a war with between pride and humility, as well as a conflict between excellence and mediocrity. Masterly strength and virtue express themselves in many ways. The master morality may be driven underground or forced to sublimate itself into other outlets. In the medieval church it was the idea of the Pope. A century after Nietzsche, we find it in the ideals of “the entrepreneur” or the many calls for “leadership” in general. Even Hitler, the “Führer,” gains momentum and admiration because he promises to return these master values to the German people. The Nazis tried to claim Nietzsche as one of their forerunners, but Nietzsche’s thinking cannot be exploited in this way, and he would never have endorsed their ideology, as Walter Kaufmann demonstrated convincingly in his book Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. (first published 1950. Nietzsche envisions an evolutionary possibility that would be the ultimate expression of master morality as ‘”spiritualized” transformation of slave morality. He calls this possibility the Übermensch, and it is probably Nietzsche’s most famous invention.

Freedom, Fate, Responsibility

Nietzsche praises fate and fatalism, which is unusual for a modern philosopher. At the same time, he encourages existential self­-realization, which seems to be opposed to fatalism. He takes his emphasis on fate from the ancient Greeks, but he is also struggling with Schopenhauer’s pessimism. Nietzsche rejects pessimism and replaces it with amor fati – the love of fate, but insists that we should “give style to our character” and “become who we are” (Pindar). He follows Schopenhauer in his heavy use of the word “will,” but he rejects much of what  Schopenhauer has to say about it, for instance the pessimistic depiction of life as amounting to nothing. He also rejects Schopenhauer’s metaphysical understanding of the Will as a “thing in itself.” Nevertheless, he agrees with Schopenhauer’s rejection of free will. Free will depends on an imaginary notion of the self, as advocated by Kant. “Free will” confuses causes and effects. For Nietzsche, consciousness is overrated in the German philosophers before him. We are biological creatures, whose every action can (in principle) be explained naturalistically. All actions can, therefore, be explained (but not necessarily justified) by motives and intentions.

Nietzsche adopts ancient Greek ideas about fate as realism and tragedy. For the Greek tragedians, fate was an undeniable aspect of human life. The notion of fate does not have to be understood as a mysterious force. Heraclitus says. “fate is character,” and this is a view that Nietzsche would endorse – that we can become what we were born to be. Nietzsche also insists that our character is to some extent our own doing. Eternal recurrence – the idea of reliving one’s life over and over again – can be read, in part, as an affirmation of fate. The idea of eternal repetition does not cause, but reiterates, that the outcome is often inevitable. Eternal recurrence is an affirmation of the inevitability of destiny, which can only be mastered by an affirmation of who we are.

Nietzsche praises amor fati – the love of fate – as the most positive outlook on life. The love of fate does not preclude taking responsibility for your life. Fate is not blind resignation, but it is the acceptance of your current place and your tasks in life. Unlike Kierkegaard and Sartre, Nietzsche has an ambivalent attitude toward the notions of freedom and responsibility. He is influenced by Darwin, so he focuses not on the exceptional individual alone, but on the individual in context, and also not on facticity, but on becoming. We are not fully directing the process of history, we are mostly experiencing it, and being human is not for the faint-hearted. (Nietzsche: Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits.)

The Will  to Power

The “Übermensch” is Nietzsche’s best-known concept. He appears in the invocations of Zarathustra at the beginning of the book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” (1886). By introducing the prophet of the future, Nietzsche resurrects the old Persian religion of Zoroaster, which is joyful and life-affirming. The distant past points into the future. Nietzsche also introduces a resentful opposite character, the “last man.” The Übermensch represents a superior morality, but he is also an evolutionary possibility and as such the highest manifestation of the ‘will to power.” The Übermensch represents passion and the love of life. The other evolutionary possibility, ”the last man,” is the self-contented, self-satisfied utilitarian modern man. “We have invented happiness,”says the last man, “and he blinks“. Zarathustra invokes the last man in order to awaken his audience, so that they grasp the possibility of a better future, rather than submit to mediocrity and slave morality.

The Übermensch is portrayed by Zarathustra  as a “possibility” for the future, something to which humanity can aspire. Master morality is “spiritualized” by two thousand years of humility, ready to reassert itself in a more refined form. The Übermensch is free of resentment and wholly independent of the “herd.” Nietzsche is influenced by Darwin, but he questions the simplistic premise that only the srongest will survive. Nietzsche’s philosophy is Darwinism infused with master morality, and this mixture creates a polarized, intense, and unique form of thinking with a dynamic view of existence as “becoming.”

Nietzsche occasionally finds people he admires, like Wagner or Goethe. While he changed his mind on Wagner, he kept his respect for Goethe, who is, in his view, an example for the future of man. The realm that concerns Nietzsche is not so much biological evolution as human spirituality and creativity. What distinguishes the higher from the lower is a difference in the “will to power.” “The will to power” is a phrase that Nietzsche employs throughout his philosophy. It is to some extent borrowed from Schopenhauer’s idea of the “will,” but Nietzsche rejected Schopenhauer’s metaphysics as too Kantian. .By “power” Nietzsche does not mean political power, or power over others, but power of creativity and imagination. Power is best conceived as self-mastery and inner strength. Schopenhauer took the will to be a metaphysical force, “the thing-in­ itself.” Nietzsche rejects all such metaphysics and the very idea of “the thing-in-itself.” For Nietzsche, the will to power provides a serious theory of motivation. Human (or animal) behavior is motivated by the desire for self-expression and assertion. Nietzsche is often purposefully vague: How does this force manifest in social relations?  Does he suggest a limited empirical hypothesis, or a theory of human nature as such? Or, does he think of a drive-dynamic that powers historical change?

He is also opposed to hedonistic theories: that people (and animals) act to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Utilitarianism, for example, uses the pleasure principle, or at least a variation of it, as a central  tenet. But for Nietzsche, utilitarianism leads to mediocrity, and trying to understand behavior in this light misses the point: if the will to power reaches from self-centeredness to self-mastery and self-esteem, passions as love, compassion, solidarity, or pity, often have ulterior or even dubious motives, because they are just masks for envy, hatred, and jealousy.

The will to power can also be understood as a celebration of the passionate life. The history of philosophy is full of arguments for measured, rational behavior, and often advocates for a tranquil, peaceful, and civilized life. But for Nietzsche, this just indicates how embedded slave morality leads to a kind of deadness. These philosophies of a good life exclude the “Dionysian” dimension, they repress the memory of violence and trauma. They can only be achieved if the thinker abandons her existence to some degree, if she lets go of attachments and suppresses the losses that form her life. Nietzsche argues that passion (for ideals, art, or people) are what life is all about. It is better to live as a tragic figure than to become one of the last men, who exist as herd creatures and want to be happy in the here and now.

Apollo and Dionysus

The metaphor of energy circulates in late 19th century thinking, from Bergson to Nietzsche and Freud. The 19th century begins with the romantic movement, and later on, para-psychological phenomena are investigated. The creation of psychoanalysis is around the corner. Physics expands its research into energy phenomena. Radioactivity was discovered in 1896. The new intuitions about the dynamics of energy provide Nietzsche with a model for human behavior that does not conform to the traditional notions of inertia and momentum. Exploration, excitement and adventure, become the keys to a good human life, not resignation or contemplation. Passion is energy, and it transforms human life and experience. In this regard, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard have similar perspectives. Not every passion is desirable, however. Some passions are “life-stultifying” and stupid, such as resentment. They drag us down or even destroy us. Others are highly refined and cultivated. These are the “grand passions” that make life. worthwhile. For Nietzsche, as for many other philosophers of the century, “nothing great is ever done without passion” (Hegel). Nietzsche  rejects the dichotomy between reason and passion, but replaces it with an opposition between the Apollonian and the Dionysian dimension of life. These passions have their own form of reasoning, and in many regards, Nietzsche argues like Freud. Passions and emotions are themselves forms of existence and insight. The ultimate passion is the love of life, but not in a general sense. It is the love of your life and what you have done and are doing with it. The test of this love of life is what Nietzsche calls “the thought of eternal recurrence.”· How do you feel about living your life, exactly as it is, once again? Philosophy, contra Schopenhauer, is an affirmation of this life.

Apollo and Dionysus stand respectively for the separate art-worlds of dreams and of intoxication. Apollo rules over the inner world of fantasy, which is a world of art, the world of dreams where the subject is the artist, a realm of delight and “joyous necessity:” Dreams and art come from the same source. Apollonian art maintains a “measured restraint”, a freedom from the “wilder emotions”. The darker, more frightening, and more impersonal forces of the unconscious mind only come out in Dionysian art and ritual, as in dancing, intoxication, or orgiastic encounters. In these forms of ecstasy the unconscious takes over, the self is submerged, and the Apollonian principle of individuation yields to the primordial unity between human and nature.  Nietzsche finds in ancient Greek tragedy a synthesis of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, because dreams and ecstasy merge in the lives of the people who are depicted. In this regard, Nietzsche is also a forerunner of modern psychoanalysis, and he keeps the dimension of tragedy open for us.

 © 2016 Jurgen Braungardt. All rights reserved.

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  1. […] stories ever written, we need to consider a warning from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who was also very interested in Achilles and the origins of Western civilization in ancient […]

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19th Century Philosophy, Continental Philosophy, Existentialism, Philosophers, Philosophy


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