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Friedrich Nietzsche, 1882
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (October 15, 1844 – August 25, 1900) was a highly influential German philosopher, philologist, and psychologist.
Friedrich Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844 in the small town of Röcken bei Lützen, near Leipzig, Saxony. He was born on the 49th birthday of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia and was thus named after him. His father was a Lutheran pastor, who died of softening of the brain in 1849, when Nietzsche was four years old. In 1850 Nietzsche's mother moved the family to Naumburg, where he lived for the next eight years before heading off to school. Nietzsche was now the only male in the house, living with his mother, his grandmother, two paternal aunts, and his sister Elisabeth. He was very pious as a young child. A brilliant student, he became chair of classical philology at the University of Basel in 1869 at the age of only 24. He had already met composer Richard Wagner in November of 1868. He wrote to a friend a month later, "that we will come to a total understanding of a genius who appeared to me as an unsolvable problem and at the understanding of whom I, for years, made several attempts: this genius is Richard Wagner."
At Basel, Nietzsche found little satisfaction in life among his philology colleagues and he established closer intellectual ties to the historian Jakob Burckhardt, whose lectures he attended, and the theologian Franz Overbeck . His inaugural lecture at Basel was Über die Persönlichkeit Homers . He made frequent visits to the Wagners at Tribschen . When the Franco-Prussian war erupted in 1870, Nietzsche left Basel and, being disqualified for other services due to his citizenship status, volunteered as a medical orderly on active duty. His time in the military was short, but he experienced much, witnessing the traumatic effects of battle and taking close care of wounded soldiers. He soon contracted diphtheria and dysentery and subsequently experienced a painful variety of health difficulties for the remainder of his life. Upon return to Basel, instead of waiting to heal, he pushed headlong into a more fervent schedule of study than ever before. In 1870 he gave Cosima Wagner the manuscript of The Genesis of the Tragic Idea as a birthday gift. In 1872, he published his first book, The Birth of Tragedy. A biting critical reaction by the young and promising philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, as well as its innovative views of the ancient Greeks, dampened the book's reception among scholars.
In April of 1873, Wagner incited Nietzsche to take on David Friedrich Strauß , whose book Der alte und der neue Glaube Wagner found shallow and who sided with the composer and conductor Franz Lachner who had been dismissed on account of Wagner. In 1879, Nietzsche retired from his position at Basel due to his continued poor health. From 1880 until his collapse in January 1889, Nietzsche led a wandering existence as a stateless person, writing most of his major works during this period. His fame and influence came later, despite (or because of) the interference of his sister Elisabeth, who published selections from his notebooks as The Will to Power in 1901.
Nietzsche endured periods of illness during his adult life. In 1889, after the completion of Ecce Homo , his health rapidly declined until he collapsed. At that moment, he is said to have tearfully embraced a horse in Turin because it had been beaten by its owner. He was taken back to his room and spent several days in a state of ecstasy writing letters to various friends, signing them Dionysus. He gradually became less coherent and almost entirely uncommunicative. His friend Peter Gast observed that he retained the ability to improvise beautifully on the piano for some months after his breakdown, but this too eventually left him.
The initial symptoms of Nietzsche's breakdown, as evidenced in the letters he sent to his friends in the few days of lucidity remaining to him, bear many similarities to the ecstatic writings of religious mystics. These letters remain the best evidence we have of Nietzsche's own opinion on the nature of his breakdown. Nietzsche's letters describe his experience as a religious breakthrough and he rejoices, rather than laments. Most Nietzsche commentators find the issue of Nietzsche's breakdown and "insanity" irrelevant to his work as a philosopher, though some, including Georges Bataille, have disagreed.
Nietzsche spent the last ten years of his life insane and in the care of his sister Elisabeth. He was completely unaware of the growing success of his works. The cause of Nietzsche's condition has to be regarded as undetermined. Doctors later in his life said they were not so sure about the initial diagnosis of syphilis because he lacked the typical symptoms. While the story of syphilis indeed became generally accepted in the twentieth century, recent research in the Journal of Medical Biography shows that syphilis is not consistent with Nietzsche's symptoms and that the contention that he had the disease originated in anti-Nietzschean tracts. One of the best arguments against the syphilis theory is summarized by Claudia Crawford in the book To Nietzsche: Dionysus, I Love You! Ariadne. Another speculation is that he had a brain condition similar to his father's. His handwriting in all the letters that he had written around the period of the final breakdown showed no sign of deterioration, a typical symptom of syphilis.
His works and ideas
Nietzsche is famous for
- his rejection of what he calls "slave morality" (which he felt reflected the inverse of the "will to power" and a perversion of useful altruism);
- his attacks on Christianity (the most well known, if poorly understood, of which occurs in the phrase "God is dead", from a passage in The Gay Science titled "The Madman");
- his origination of the Übermensch concept (translated as "overman", sometimes as "superman", which finally means "over-man" or "through-man" or, in German, "Hindurch-Mensch");
- his embrace of a sort of a-rationalism; and another idea he called "the Will to Power" (Wille zur Macht). Nietzsche was strongly influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer and his concept of "the Will to live". It has been argued that Nietzsche was influenced by the radically nominalist work of young hegelian Max Stirner;
- his belief in and writings on the Eternal Return, and its relation to the Übermensch;
- his important early concept of "free spirit", which might be the starting point for the Übermensch concept.
The "Will to Power"
One of Nietzsche's central concepts is "the Will to Power" (Wille zur Macht), a process of expansion and venting of creative energy that he believed was the basic driving force of nature. He believed it to be the fundamental causal power in the world: the driving force of all natural phenomena and the dynamic to which all other causal powers can be reduced. That is, Nietzsche in part hoped Will to Power could be a "theory of everything," providing the ultimate foundations for explanations of everything from whole societies, to individual organisms, down to mere lumps of matter. In contrast to the "theories of everything" attempted in physics, Nietzsche's was teleological in nature.
Nietzsche perhaps developed the Will to Power concept furthest with regards to living organisms, and it is there where the concept is perhaps easiest to understand. There, the Will to Power is taken as an animal's most fundamental instinct or drive, even more fundamental than the will to self-preservation. The Will to Power is something like the desire to exert one's will in self-overcoming, although this "willing" may be unconscious. The philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto says that "aggression" is at least sometimes an approximate synonym. However, Nietzsche's ideas of aggression are almost always meant as aggression toward oneself, as the energy a person motivates toward self-mastery. In any case, since the Will to Power is fundamental, any other drives are to be reduced to it; the "will to survive" (i.e. the survival instinct) that biologists (at least in Nietzsche's day) thought to be fundamental, for example, was in this light a manifestation of the Will to Power.
Not just instincts but also higher level behaviors (even in humans) were to be reduced to the Will to Power. This includes both such apparently harmful acts as physical violence, lying, and domination, on one hand, and such apparently non-harmful acts as gift-giving, love, and praise on the other. In Beyond Good and Evil, he claims that philosophers' "will to truth" (i.e., their apparent desire to dispassionately seek objective truth) is actually nothing more than a manifestation of their Will to Power; if it is not, the will to truth is nothing more than nihilism.
As indicated above, the Will to Power is meant to explain more than just the behavior of an individual person or animal. The Will to Power can also be the explanation for why water flows as it does, why plants grow, and why social classes behave as they do.
Similar ideas in others' thought
With respect to the Will to Power, Nietzsche was influenced early on by Arthur Schopenhauer and his concept of the "Will to Live", but he explicitly denied the identity of the two ideas and eventually renounced Schopenhauer's influence in The Birth of Tragedy, where he stated his view that Schopenhauer's ideas were pessimistic and will-negating. Other ideas that parallel Nietzsche's are those of pre-Socratic Greek Philosophy, Taoism, which holds that to follow one's own natural will will bring about a happier existence, and Hegel's theory of history.
Some have also seen a parallel of Nietzcheanism in the writing of Max Stirner, the philosophical egoist who was part of the Young Hegelian school.
Criticism of the idea
Although the idea may seem harsh to some, Nietzsche saw the Will to Power -- or, as he famously put it, the ability to "say yes! to life" -- as life-affirming. Creatures affirm the instinct in exerting their energy, in venting their strength. The suffering borne of conflict between competing wills and the efforts to overcome one's environment are not evil, but a part of existence to be embraced. It signifies the healthy expression of the natural order, whereas failing to act in one's self-interest is seen as a type of illness. Enduring satisfaction and pleasure result from living creatively, overcoming oneself, and successfully exerting the Will to Power.
Nietzsche's work addresses ethics from several perspectives; in today's terms, we might say his remarks pertain to meta-ethics, normative ethics, and descriptive ethics.
As far as meta-ethics is concerned, Nietzsche can perhaps most usefully be classified as a moral skeptic; that is, he claims that all ethical statements are false, because any kind of correspondence between ethical statements and "moral facts" is illusory. (This is part of a more general claim that all facts are false, roughly because none of them more than "appear" to correspond to reality). Instead, ethical statements (like all statements) are mere "interpretations".
Sometimes, Nietzsche may seem to have very definite opinions on what is moral or immoral. Note, however, that Nietzsche's moral opinions may be explained without attributing to him the claim that they are true. For Nietzsche, after all, we needn't disregard a statement merely because it is false. On the contrary, he often claims that falsehood is essential for "life".
In the juncture between normative ethics and descriptive ethics, Nietzsche distinguishes between "master morality" and "slave morality". Although he recognizes that not everyone holds either scheme in a pure fashion, he presents them in contrast to one another. Some of the contrasts in master vs. slave morality:
- "good" and "bad" interpretations vs. "good" and "evil" interpretations
- "aristocratic" vs. "part of the 'herd'"
- determines values independently of predetermined foundations (nature) vs. determines values on predetermined, unquestioned foundations (Christianity).
These ideas were elaborated in his book On the Genealogy of Morals in which he also introduced the key concept of ressentiment as the basis for the slave morality.
- "The revolt of the slave in morals begins in the very principle of ressentiment becoming creative and giving birth to values — a ressentiment experienced by creatures who, deprived as they are of the proper outlet of action are forced to find their compensation in an imaginary revenge. While every aristocratic morality springs from a triumphant affirmation of its own demands, the slave morality says 'no' from the very outset to what is 'outside itself,' 'different from itself,' and 'not itself'; and this 'no' is its creative deed." (On the Genealogy of Morals)
Nietzsche's assessment of both the antiquity and resultant impediments presented by the ethical and moralistic teachings of the world's monotheistic religions eventually led him to his own epiphany about the nature of God and morality, resulting in his work Also sprach Zarathustra.
Nietzsche is also well-known for the statement "God is dead". While in popular belief it is Nietzsche himself who blatantly made this declaration, it was actually placed into the mouth of a character, a "madman," in The Gay Science. It was also later proclaimed by Nietzsche's Zarathustra. This largely misunderstood statement does not proclaim a physical death, but a natural end to the belief in God being the foundation of the western mind. It is also widely misunderstood as a kind of gloating declaration, when it is actually described as a tragic lament by the character Zarathustra.
"God is Dead" is more of an observation than a declaration, and it is noteworthy that Nietzsche never felt the need to advance any arguments for atheism, but merely observed that, for all practical purposes, his contemporaries lived "as if" God were dead. Nietzsche believed this "death" would eventually undermine the foundations of morality and lead to moral relativism and nihilism. To avoid this, he believed in re-evaluating the foundations of morality and placing them not on a pre-determined, but a natural foundation.
According to Dr. Norman Ravitch, professor of history at U.C. Riverside, "What Spengler, Toynbee, and Nietzsche can teach us is how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, despite superficial differences, were all forged and/or altered by a religious revolution in ancient Iran associated with the name Zoroaster or Zarathustra. The central notions of dualism between Good and Evil, Salvation through an Expected Messiah, and the Final Battle between St Michael and Satan animate these world religions and their devotees. Pragmatism, reason, and common sense have little place in these primitive Semitic world views. All conflict is interpreted as part of a cosmic struggle between Good and Evil and there is no room for compromise or tolerance."
In his important work The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche attacked German scholarly Christianity for what he called its "transvaluation" of healthy instinctive values. He went beyond agnostic and atheistic thinkers of the Enlightenment, who felt that Christianity was simply untrue to claiming it may have been deliberately propagated as an inherently bad and subversive religion (or in late 20th century parlance: a "psychological warfare weapon" or "memetic virus") within the Roman Empire by the Apostle Paul as a form of covert revenge for the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple during the Jewish War. However, in The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche has a remarkably high view of Jesus, claiming the scholars of the day fail to pay any attention to the man, Jesus, and only look to their construction, Christ. Nietzsche said that "there was only one true Christian, and he died on the cross." According to the American writer H.L. Mencken, Nietzsche felt that the religion of the ancient Greeks of the heroic and classical era was superior to Christianity because it portrayed strong, heroic, and smart men as role models and did not try to demonize healthy natural desires, such as creativity and writing poetry. According to at least one authority, the Slovenian scholar Anton Strle, Nietzsche lost his faith in the time he was reading the book Leben Jesu (Life of Jesus), written by the German theologian David Strauss.
Nietzsche's sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche heavily edited Nietzsche's work in order to promote him as a proto-Nazi thinker (she was herself an ardent German nationalist and pro-Nazi); this bastardization was largely to blame for Nietzsche being associated in the 1930s with the Nazis, who primarily took Elisabeth's deliberately misconstrued versions of his works as one of their main sources.
It is worth noting that Nietzsche's thought largely stands opposed to Nazism. In particular, Nietzsche despised anti-Semitism (which partially led to his falling out with composer Richard Wagner) and nationalism. He took a dim view of German culture as it was in his time, and derided both the state and populism. He was also far from being a racist, believing that the "vigor" of any population could only be increased by mixing with others. In Twilight of the Idols , Nietzsche says, "...the concept of 'pure blood' is the opposite of a harmless concept."
As for the idea of the "blond beast," Walter Kaufmann has this to say: "The 'blond beast' is not a racial concept and does not refer to the 'Nordic race' of which the Nazis later made so much. Nietzsche specifically refers to Arabs and Japanese, Romans and Greeks, no less than ancient Teutonic tribes when he first introduces the term...and the 'blondness' obviously refers to the beast, the lion, rather than the kind of man."
While some of his writings on "the Jewish question" were critical of the Jewish population in Europe, he also praised the strength of the Jewish people, and this criticism was equally, if not more strongly, applied to the English, the Germans, and the rest of Europe. He also valorised strong leadership, and it was this last tendency that the Nazis took up.
While his use by the Nazis was inaccurate, it should not be supposed that he was strongly liberal either. One of the things that he seems to have detested the most about Christianity was its emphasis on pity and how this leads to the elevation of the weak-minded. Nietzsche believed that it was wrong to deprive people of their pain, because it was this very pain that stirred them to improve themselves, to grow and become stronger. It should be noted that he did not disbelieve in helping people; he simply believed much Christian pity robbed people of necessary painful life experiences, and robbing a person of his necessary pain, for Nietzsche, was wrong. He believed that "that which does not kill us, makes us stronger".
Nietzsche referred to the common people as "the rabble" and liberalism as "reduction to the herd animal". While he had a dislike of the state in general, he spoke negatively of anarchists and made it clear that only certain individuals should break away from it in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
It is, however, hard to classify Nietzsche's politics, as he avoided the topic and did not see it as his main concern. He seems to have very little interest in the economy. There are also some liberal strands to his beliefs, such as his distrust of strong punishment for criminals and even a criticism of the death penalty can be found in his early work. Since World War II, Nietzsche's influence has generally been clustered on the political left, particularly in France by way of Post-Modern thought. However, in the United States, Nietzsche appears to have exercised some influence upon certain conservative academics (see, for example, Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom).
Themes and trends in Nietzsche's work
Nietzsche is important as a precursor of 20th century-existentialism, an inspiration for post-structuralism and an influence on postmodernism. However, dry academic summaries of his thought cannot capture the liveliness of his writing. In many respects his writings today appear "romantic" relative to modern sociobiological and medical anthropological theory in the same sense that the Wright Brothers' flying machines appear quaint relative to modern high performance jets.
Nietzsche's works helped to reinforce not only agnostic trends that followed Enlightenment thinkers, and the biological worldview gaining currency from the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin (which also later found expression in the "medical" and "instinctive" interpretations of human behavior by Sigmund Freud), but also the "romantic nationalist" political movements in the late 19th century when various peoples of Europe began to celebrate archeological finds and literature related to pagan ancestors, such as the uncovered Viking burial mounds in Scandinavia, Wagnerian interpretations of Norse mythology stemming from the Eddas of Iceland, Italian nationalist celebrations of the glories of a unified, pre-Christian Roman peninsula, French examination of Celtic Gaul of the pre-Roman era, and Irish nationalist interest in revitalizing Gaelic.
Some people have suggested that Fyodor Dostoevsky may have specifically created the plot of his Crime and Punishment as a Christian rebuttal to Nietzsche, though this cannot be correct as Dostoevsky finished Crime and Punishment well before Nietzsche published any of his works. Rather, Nietzsche seems to have admired Dostoevsky and read several of his works in French translation. In an 1887 letter Nietzsche says that he read Notes from Underground (translated 1886) first, and two years later makes reference to a stage production of Crime and Punishment, which he calls Dostoevsky's "main novel".
Nietzsche is unique among philosophers in his prose style, particularly in the Zarathustra. Perhaps not surprisingly for a pastor's son, he frequently employs an idiom modelled on Luther's bible. Equally important are punning and paradox in his rhetoric. All this means is that nuances and shades of meaning are all too easily lost in translation into English. A case in point is the thorny issue of the translation of Übermensch and its association with the heroic character Superman as well as the Nazi party and philosophy.
- "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you."
- "Through life's school of war: that which does not kill you only serves to make you stronger."
- "A man's maturity -- consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play."
- "But to say it once more: there are higher problems than all problems of pleasure, pain, and pity; and every philosophy that stops with them is a naïveté."
- "The time for petty politics is over: the very next century will bring the fight for the dominion of the earth--- the compulsion to large-scale politics."
- "The perfect woman is a higher type of human than the perfect man, and also something much more rare."
- "Women's intellect is manifested as perfect control, presence of mind, and utilization of all advantages."
- "I enquire now as to the genesis of a philologist and assert the following: 1. A young man cannot possibly know what Greeks and Romans are. 2. He does not know whether he is suited for finding out about them."
- "Public apathy ... private laziness."
- "Thou goest to women? Do not forget thy whip!" - Thus Spake Zarathustra
- "I love the magnificent exuberance of a young beast of prey that plays gracefully and, as it plays, dismembers."
- "There are no facts, only interpretations."
- "In the end, one experiences only oneself."
List of works
- Aus meinem Leben, 1858
- Über Musik, 1858
- Napoleon III als Praesident, 1862
- Fatum und Geschichte, 1862
- Willensfreiheit und Fatum, 1862
- Kann der Neidische je wahrhaft glücklich sein ?, 1863
- Über Stimmungen, 1864
- Mein Leben, 1864
- Homer und die klassische Philologie, 1868
- Über die Zukunft unserer Bildungsanstalten
Fünf Vorreden zu fünf ungeschriebenen Büchern, 1872 :
- I Über das Pathos der Wahrheit 
- II Gedanken über die Zukunft unserer Bildungsanstalten
- III Der griechische Staat 
- IV Das Verhältnis der Schopenhauerischen Philosophie zu einer deutschen Cultur 
- V Homer's Wettkampf
- Die Geburt der Tragödie, 1872 (The Birth of Tragedy)
- Über Wahrheit und Lüge im aussermoralischen Sinn
- Die Philosophie im tragischen Zeitalter der Griechen
- Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen, 1876 (Untimely Meditations)
- Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, 1878 (Human, All Too Human)
- Morgenröte, 1881 (Daybreak, or The Dawn)
- Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882 (The Gay Science)
- Also sprach Zarathustra, 1885 (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
- Jenseits von Gut und Böse, 1886 (Beyond Good and Evil)
- Zur Genealogie der Moral, 1887 (On the Genealogy of Morals)
- Der Fall Wagner, 1888 (The Case of Wagner)
- Götzen-Dämmerung, 1888 (The Twilight of the Idols)
- Der Antichrist, 1888 (The Antichrist)
Ecce Homo , 1888 (Behold the Man, an attempt at autobiography; the title refers to Pontius Pilate's statement upon meeting Jesus of Nazareth)
- Nietzsche contra Wagner, 1888 (Nietzsche vs. Wagner)
Der Wille zur Macht , 1901 (The Will to Power, a highly selective collection of notes from various notebooks, not intended for publication by Nietzsche himself, but released by his sister)
Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974
- Wicks, Robert. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2004 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche/ .
- Nehamas, Alexander. Nietzsche: Life as Literature. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1985. ISBN 0674624351
- Hayman, Ronald. Nietzsche: A Critical Life., Oxford University Press, New York, 1980, ISBN 019520204X
- Janz, Curt Paul. Friedrich Nietzsche. Biographie., Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, München, 1993, ISBN 3423043830
Full texts of Nietzsche's works: