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Born: 1844, Rocken, Germany

Died: 1900, Weimar, Germany

Major Works: The Gay Science (1882), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887)

Major Ideas

Self-deception is a particularly destructive characteristic of Western culture.

Life is the will to power; our natural desire is to dominate and to reshape the world to fit our own preferences and to assert our personal strength to the fullest degree possible.

Struggle, through which individuals achieve a degree of power commensurate with their abilities, is the basic fact of human existence.

Ideals of human equality perpetuate mediocrity--a truth that has been distorted and concealed by modern value systems.

Christian morality, which identifies goodness with meekness and servility, is the prime culprit in creating a cultural climate that thwarts the drive for excellence and self-realization.

God is dead; a new era of human creativity and achievement is at hand.

Friedrich Nietzsche's rebellious spirit found expression in the style of his writing. He had little patience for attempts at the rigorous definition of terms, sustained logical analysis, and proofs about the ultimate nature of things, all of which in his view typified previous philosophy. Flashes of insight, aphoristic expressions, and proclamations are characteristic of his work. His ideas often appear to be nonsystematic and disconnected, characterized by conflict and even contradiction. Nietzsche did not try to explain away these tensions to make things easy for his readers.

Connections do exist between Nietzsche's disparate assertions, but he challenges us to figure out the appropriate links for ourselves, if we can. And even then Nietzsche did not want his readers to be overly confident that they had arrived at a final truth beyond criticism. "Every philosophy," he once wrote, "is a foreground philosophy.... Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy." Nietzsche, we might say, undermines or deconstructs even his own thought--not to detract from its value but to insist that we always need to dig deeper and should be suspicious about stopping inquiry too soon.

Nietzsche's philosophical style is a miniature of the world he experienced. This world has some pattern and structure, but it does not form a completed rational system. "There are no moral phenomena at all," Nietzsche observed, "but only a moral interpretation of phenomena." Life moves, and Nietzsche tried to describe the features of human existence as he saw them. His bold interpretations and inquisitive probes evaluated broad trends in the development of morality and religion. They did so partly by exploring the "death" of God.

Nietzsche was born in 1844 in the little Prussian town of Rocken. His father, a Lutheran pastor, died when Nietzsche was only five, but the family saw that he received good schooling. Greek and German literature were his early interests, and he also worked to develop skill as a poet and musician. By 1865, Nietzsche was studying at the University of Leipzig. Not only had he given up an earlier idea to enter the Lutheran ministry, but also he was essentially alienated from the Christian faith. In 1869, he accepted an offer to teach classical philology at the University of Basel, Switzerland. His teaching career was interrupted by service in the ambulance corps of the German army during the Franco-Prussian War. Illnesses contracted during his military duty left him in a weakened condition, and in 1879 poor health forced him to end his teaching career.

The next decade of Nietzsche's life was marked by a search for medical help to restore his health and by the development of philosophical themes that had already started to emerge in his years at Basel. While there, Nietzsche had analyzed Greek civilization and contrasted it with his contemporary German society. He believed that the height of Greek culture had been realized in instances where two main tendencies had been carefully blended. One of these seemed to Nietzsche to be symbolized by Dionysius, the god of wine and revelry. It incorporated an emphasis on instinct, passion, and the primordial forces of nature. Where this tendency dominated, people were characterized by unrestrained desires for conquest, passionate love, and mystical ecstasy The other tendency was symbolized by Apollo, the god of art and science. Self-control, measured behavior, and serenity were traits that came to the fore when the Apollonian spirit was in command.

In Nietzsche's analysis, ancient Greek life had been characterized primarily by Dionysian traits, but, after a period of successful blending, the Apollonian qualities became dominant. The fruitful merger between the two tendencies, which had been the greatness of Greece, did not last, and the result--the suppression of Dionysian qualities and dominance of the doctrine "nothing in excess"--was a prelude to the tame mediocrity that would later become the central motif of Western civilization through the rise and spread of Christianity. Thus, Nietzsche's analysis entailed that, in contrast to the highest culture of Greece, nineteenth-century Europe and Germany in particular were sick and in need of an infusion of passion and a desire to excel. Such changes might outstrip the conventional dictates of prudence and Christian morality that had taken over Western civilization.

Nietzsche viewed existence as a struggle. His understanding of life, moreover, was influenced by the Darwinian conception that nature encourages the survival of the strong and fit and the elimination of the weak. The sickness of his own society was evidenced, Nietzsche thought, by the fact that the powers in control were those that advocated leveling everything down to mediocrity so that the strong were held in check and the weak could survive. Nevertheless, there was a chance for at least a few individuals to become something more than the stifling structures of society tended to permit. If society's sickness could be exposed, and if a sketch of genuine excellence in life could be set forth, there was hope that some unique individuals ("supermen" or "overmen") might transcend the low state into which life had lapsed and help to transform life's quality.

Nietzsche's most significant attempts to perform these tasks are found in the writings he published in the 1880s. These works include The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, and On the Genealogy of Morals. By the end of the decade, however, Nietzsche's literary output had ceased. In January 1889, while in Turin, Italy, he suffered a serious mental breakdown and never recovered. Nietzsche died on August 25, 1900.

Self-deception and the Will to Power

"We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge--and with good reason." Thus begins On the Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche's theme was that even though people may regard themselves as well informed, sophisticated, and knowledgeable, their lack of courage keeps them from uncovering what lies at the foundation of human existence and morality. Previous attempts to speak to such issues reveal more about the decadence of Western civilization than they do about how things really are. Nietzsche sought to check this plague of self-delusion. He worked to lay bare facts that people had suppressed and hidden, envisioning himself as a therapist who could free his readers from the cultural restrictions that stifle excellence. But the freedom that emerges might be overwhelming. "Independence is for the very few," said Nietzsche. "It is a privilege of the strong." For the few who resist retreating into the security illusions provide, this twilight of the idols of conventional morality and religion is the dawn of a new hope .

Nietzsche felt that it is self-deception not to admit honestly that "life simply is will to power." He was no advocate of the democratic ideal of human equality. Such a doctrine, he thought, only levels the quality of life toward mediocrity. Individuals vary greatly in their talents and abilities, and there are basic qualitative differences that leave them unequal as persons. Nevertheless, according to Nietzsche, will do what they can to assert power. Each will strive to achieve and hold a position of dominance. This tendency means that struggle is a basic fact of life. There is fierce competition for the top positions of power. If anyone falters at the top, someone else takes over.

Beyond Good and Evil

As Nietzsche interpreted the course of human history, Western culture has been dominated by an unfortunate distinction between "good" and "evil," a distinction that the Christian religion in particular has done much to encourage. Spurred by a deep hatred of aristocratic ways they could not emulate, the masses of humanity, often supported by religious leaders have indulged in a revenge-motivated negation of the qualities of an aristocratic life. As Nietzsche saw things, the "good" of the good-evil distinction has emphasized equality, selflessness, meekness humility, sympathy, pity, and other qualities of weakness. It has castigated the noble, aristocratic qualities--self-assertion, daring creativity, passion, and desire for conquest--by calling them evil. The prevalence of this concept of evil, Nietzsche contended, is responsible for weak ness and mediocrity among those in dominant positions. It has annihilated the qualities that are essential for excellence in life. For Nietzsche, the low state of contemporary society indicated that not much had been done to fulfill these needs for excellence.

Human existence, however, need not end on this dismal note. If Nietzsche sometimes regarded himself as a voice crying in the wilderness, he also thought human life could redeem itself by going beyond good and evil Must not the ancient fire someday flare up much more terribly, after much longer preparation?" he wrote; "More: must one not desire it with all ones might? even will it? even promote it?" The spirit of nobility--affirmation of life, struggle, and conquest, and a passionate desire to excel--these characteristics need to be uplifted. Nietzsche's aim, however, was not to duplicate the past but to put these essential qualities back into contemporary life.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

The most dramatic and emotional expression of Nietzsche's call to all humankind to throw off the restraints of conventional morality, which he called a "slave morality," and to liberate themselves through the exercise of creative power, thereby creating a new morality of individual power, is his masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This long impassioned work is in the form of an account of the travels of Zarathustra, a figure based on the 6th century B.C. Iranian prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra is the Latin form of the name) but adapted to Nietzsche's poetic and philosophical ends. Zarathustra is a vital and sometimes explosive advocate of Nietzsche's radical view of life.

Zarathustra travels from town to town, preaching the word of a new "religion," earth-centered, humanistic, and rebellious: "I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?... The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherwordly hopes!... Behold the good and the just! Whom do they hate most? The man who breaks their tables of values, the breaker, the lawbreaker; yet he is the creator."

When Zarathustra meets a hermit saint in a forest, the saint speaks of praising God. Zarathustra reflects on what he has heard: "Could it be possible? The old saint in the forest has not yet heard anything of this, that God is dead!"

The proclamation of the death of God was a fundamental ingredient in the revaluation of values Nietzsche advocated. This proclamation emerges from his conviction that the morality of mediocrity and affirmations of God's existence, especially as the latter are understood in Christianity, stand inextricably tied together. Nothing, argued Nietzsche, has done more than Christianity to entrench the morality of mediocrity in human consciousness. In Nietzsche's view, the Christian emphasis on love extols qualities of weakness. Christianity urges that it is our responsibility to cultivate those attributes, not because of an abstract concept of duty, but because it is God's will that we do so. As this conception develops, Nietzsche argued, it binds people in debilitating guilt. It also leads them to an escapist tendency to seek fulfillment beyond this world.

Arguably one-sided, Nietzsche's critique was loud and clear: Christianity, with its conception of a transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient, just, and loving God, denies and negates too much that is valuable in this world. Institutionalized by church and state, Christian theology and morality have made prisoners of Western humanity. Christianity claims that true freedom exists in serving God, but it denies a genuinely creative freedom by asserting that the world and its value structure are fixed by the will of God. It claims to offer people release from sin and guilt, but it does so at the expense of reducing them to mediocrity Christianity advances a doctrine of love and charity, but this teaching actually rests on a feeling of hatred and revenge directed toward the qualities of nobility.

Nietzsche did not deny that the long dominance of the Christian faith is a real manifestation of the will to power and that certain individuals have revealed unusual qualities of strength in establishing Christianity's authority. But he was convinced that the result has been to place an inferior breed in control of life. By proclaiming that God is dead, Nietzsche believed the underpinning of Christian morality might be eliminated, thus making it less difficult to move beyond our conventional understanding of good and evil.

The issue of God's existence, believed Nietzsche, is more psychological than metaphysical. Belief in God is a tool used to distort the facts of life and to attack and to bring to submission individuals of noble character. Nietzsche's aim was not so much to prove or disprove the existence of God but to show that belief in God can create a sickness. He wanted to convince people that the highest achievements in human life depend on the elimination of this belief. Nietzsche, then, assumed that God does not exist and concentrated on what he took to be the psychotherapeutic task of freeing people from the idea that they are dependent on God.

The Madman

If one argues that Nietzsche's philosophy begs the question of God's existence, Nietzsche is not without a powerful rebuttal. His is not a logical disproof of God's reality but an appraisal of human experience, which notes that, from a functional point of view, the credibility of God's existence is crumbling. Nietzsche advanced this argument in his 1882 book, The Gay Science. There he spoke of "a madman" who runs into a marketplace crying incessantly, "I seek God! I seek God!" This action provokes laughter from the men in the marketplace, who, Nietzsche reports, do not believe in God. In jest, they ask the madman whether God is lost, hiding, or traveling on a voyage. But with piercing vision, the madman confronts his tormentors with this announcement: "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him."

Significantly, Nietzsche's story involves both people who do not believe in God and the claim that people have killed God. Although nineteenth-century Europe was still dominated by Christian concepts, Nietzsche believed that the strength of Christianity was far less than it had been. People professed to be Christians and to have faith in God, but their confessions were habitual responses that lacked depth and authenticity. Nietzsche argued that developments in science and technology had eroded the idea of human dependence on God. Although those developments had not succeeded in eliminating the mediocrity that Nietzsche so much deplored, they were creating signs of a new trust in human power, and the possibility of progress through human efforts could be discerned. Philosophical critiques of theological arguments and the ever-present conflict between the presence of unmerited suffering and the assertion of God's omnipotence and goodness were also taking their toll on religious belief. Thus, a combination of f actors were turning attention away from God and toward humanity and its world. Functionally speaking, this change of outlook constituted what Nietzsche so dramatically called the "death of God" in Western civilization.

If people in the nineteenth century already lived in a world largely devoid of God, Nietzsche doubted that they realized it completely. Those who hear the madman's announcement stare at him in astonishment. These men, who are really Nietzsche's contemporaries, do not give God a place of importance. They have put God to death, but they lack a full awareness of the meaning of this fact and its significance. The madman, who sees the awesome possibilities of God's death far better than do the men in the marketplace--and thus grasps with an uncommon intensity what it might mean to seek God in a godless world---puts his point this way: "Lightning and thunder require tune, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars--and yet they have done it themselves." The madman believes that he has come before his time. People have killed God but they are not yet ready to confront this fact and its importance.

The death of God is an awesome matter, as Nietzsche's madman understands and underscores when he asks What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun?" In a series of rhetorical questions, he suggests that the death of God leaves us disoriented and in darkness. "Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the while? Must not lanterms be lit in the morning?"

Nietzsche's appraisal, though, was not that this dizzying instability should be the occasion for despair and sorrow. On the contrary, the death of God, however disorienting it may be, is an occasion to affirm life. It signifies a release, a new awareness of freedom and responsibility, and an opportunity for creative action. This situation, Nietzsche acknowledged, is full of uncertainties. It is not clear how people will react when made to understand that God is dead. There is no guarantee that they will take excellent advantage of the new freedom and opportunity for creativity available in a world where God's control is absent. Nevertheless, Nietzsche retained a guarded optimism: "At long last the horizon appears free again to us, even granted that it is not bright; at last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an 'open sea.'"

Nietzsche's philosophy places strong demands on those who would live by it. He urged such people to consider that life is an eternal recurrence. Therefore, one ought to choose so there would be no need for regret. The goal would be to act so that, if we were confronted by an identical situation an infinite number of times, we could honestly say that we would do nothing differently. Nietzsche found that life is not without rhyme or reason. But, he contended, "we invented the concept 'purpose.' In reality purpose is lacking." Human consciousness seems to exist for no purpose that transcends itself, and there is no rationality that adequately answers every question "Why?" Yet, affirms Nietzsche, if we live as far as possible with an honesty that moves beyond selfdeception, life can have the meaning we give it.

Further Reading

Hayman, Ronald. Nietzsche: A Critical Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. Hayman's biographical approach stresses the critical theory that Nietzsche helped to develop.

Heller, Erich. The Importance of Nietzsche: Ten Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. An eminent Nietzsche scholar appraises Nietzsche's work.

Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton

University Press, 1950, 1974. Authored by an eminent scholar who did much to make Nietzsche's thought accessible to English-speaking audiences, this hook remains one of the standard interpretations of the German thinker's entire body of work.

Koelb, Clayton, ed. Nietzsche as Postmodernist. Essays Pro and Contra. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990. Distinguished contemporary scholars appraise how Nietzsche's thought clarifies or complicates the debate about what philosophy is and how it works.

Krell, David Farrell, and David C. Wood, eds. Exceedingly Nietzsche: Aspects of Contemporary Nietzsche interpretation. New York: Routledge, 1988. Contemporary scholars discuss and appraise Nietzsche's work and its significance for late twentieth-century life and thought.

Magnus, Bernd. Nietzsche's Existential Imperative. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978. This helpful account of Nietzsche's philosophy focuses on Thus Spoke Zarathustra and emphasizes Nietzsche's theory of eternal recurrence.

Nehamas, Alexander. Nietzsche: Life as Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. Nehamas's interpretation is one of the most influential in recent Nietzsche scholarship.

Schacht, Richard. Nietzsche. London: Routledge, 1983. A detailed and penetrating critical study of Nietzsche's philosophy.

Solomon, Robert C., ed. Nietzsche: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1973. This volume contains more than twenty essays--each one by a distinguished author--on various aspects of Nietzsche's thought.
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Author:ROTH, JOHN K.
Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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