Friedrich Nietzsche

“I know my fate. One day there will be associated with my name the recollection of something frightful -- of a crisis like no other before on earth, of the profoundest collision of conscience, of a decision evoked against everything that until then had been believed in, demanded, sanctified. I am not a man I am dynamite.”[1] Passing through this history of philosophers, we have arrived at the enigma of modern philosophy, Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most controversial and misunderstood philosophers of all time. For almost fifty years after his death, Nietzsche’s writings were seen as ramblings of a madman in the British and American philosophical circles. And the greater misfortune is that Nietzsche’s name was unjustly associated with the movement of Nazism, owing to the political abuse of Nietzsche’s writings by his sister Elizabeth. Nietzsche belongs to no formal school of philosophy; his writings are not systematic; his style is powerful and aphoristic. In fact, in his own times, and many years after his death, he wasn’t even accepted as a philosopher, but gradually as the awareness about his works has increased, Nietzsche has emerged as one of the most influential philosophers of modern philosophy. His name has variously been associated with Existentialism, Nihilism, Nazism, Postmodernism, but I think that one would be justified in saying that in many ways Nietzsche is a separate and independent school of philosophy.

In order to fully appreciate Nietzsche’s philosophy, one has to see it in the context of his life because the two are strongly linked. And the paradox is that Nietzsche represents as an ideal in his philosophy all that he was not in his own life; Nietzsche was weak and suffered from ill health his entire life and due to this reason couldn’t serve in the army, but he idolizes strength and military training in his philosophy. Nietzsche’s writings are clearly anti-feministic but in his social life he treated women with great respect and courtesy, much more then the educated men of his own times would have done. Diane Collinson says, “The popular image of him is of someone who advocated a ruthless and passionate pursuit of power, yet in his private life he was gentle, courteous and considerate.”[2]

Nietzsche was born in Germany in 1844 in a Christian family. His father was clergy man and it was assumed that Nietzsche would become a minister himself when he grew up. Fate, however, had the very opposite in store for Nietzsche, whose intelligence had begun to show its signs even in his student life. By the age of 18, Nietzsche had lost his faith in Christianity. In 1865, he happened to read Schopenhauer's World as Will and Idea which had a marked influence on him. Nietzsche records “It seemed as if Schopenhauer were addressing me personally.” Nietzsche applied for military, but during training he was injured and was released from service. At the age of 25, Nietzsche was appointed as the professor of classical philology at the University of Basle. Around this time he became a very close friend of the famous musician Richard Wagner. Their relationship however came to an end when Wagner, particularly in Parsifal, seemed to have compromised with Christianity and the bourgeoisie. Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, which was an analysis of the Greek drama, was published in 1872, but it was met with controversy and found little admirers in the academic circles. Nietzsche soon got more interested in developing his own philosophical ideas, and wrote a series of books. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is considered as his greatest masterpiece. It has a style which imitates that of the New Testament and the dialogues of Plato, and is abundant with literary, poetic expressions and metaphors. Nietzsche uses the character of Zarathustra as a spokesman of his philosophy. The book, however, was a failure. Later Nietzsche wrote Beyond Good and Evil, another of his important works, but which Nietzsche considered as a companion to Thus Spoke Zarathustra. After a few years Nietzsche wrote The Anti-Christ which is a bitter and powerful tirade against Christianity, considering it a menace and curse upon humanity.

After a life of illness and weakness, Nietzsche finally suffered a mental breakdown and became insane in 1889. He admitted to an asylum but his mother took him to her home. She loved him and took care of him till her death in 1897, after which his sister looked after him. Nietzsche had previously left his sister because she had married an anti-Semite, something which Nietzsche couldn’t tolerate. Elisabeth took up the job of publishing Nietzsche’s unpublished books and of promoting them. Elisabeth arranged and published Nietzsche’s notes as The Will to Power, but it is now well-known that she modified the original writings to impart her own ideology in them. And the association of Nietzsche with Nazism lies greatly to her credit. Nietzsche died in insanity in 1900. “Seldom has a man paid so great a price for genius,”[3] says Will Durant.

In his early work The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche had challenged the way Greek drama had been seen by the scholars. Nietzsche said that two conflicting strains can be discovered in the writings of Greek dramatists. These two distinct tendencies are the Apollonian and Dionysian. Apollonian tendency is marked by order, balance, beauty and refinement. The Dionysian strain is wild, tragic and orgiastic, manifest as intoxication and irrationality. Nietzsche believed that Dionysian impulse is the truly creative strain, because tragedy can only emerge from pain and conflict. Nietzsche maintained that since the time of Socrates Western thought had been dominated by the Apollonian impulse, and that the German Romanticism and the music of Richard Wagner seek to reintroduce the Dionysian drive in the Western culture.

Unlike Schopenhauer, Nietzsche doesn’t believe in a cosmic will, but rather in individual will. He violently opposes all theories, which advocate a calm acceptance of the inevitable. Nietzsche vehemently rejects the whole traditional morality, and says that we need a “transvaluation of values”, a complete overhaul of conventional ideas. He maintains that the old morality derived from philosophy and religion is wrong and harmful for human life; these morals enslave and retard our abilities and potentialities for progress and development.

Nietzsche is a atheist and proclaims the death of God; “God is dead: but considering the state the species Man is in, there will perhaps be caves, for ages yet, in which his shadow will be shown.”[4] This phrase ‘God is dead’, which occurs repeatedly in Nietzsche’s writings, is meant to show the fact that the Christian ideology has ceased to play a role in the lives of the people, and that the idea of God has become useless. With this death of God, Europe is being haunted by Nihilism, a lack of any meaning, value or truth. It is generally believed that Nietzsche was an advocate of nihilism, but we must understand that this is not so. Nietzsche is not satisfied by nihilism; he sees it as a crisis being faced by the intellectual world. He considers it destructive to human culture, and leading to apathy towards life. For Nietzsche, nihilism is something to be overcome, to be transcended. He describes nihilism as "the will to nothingness", and believes that this gap of nothingness is to filled up with a value of willful affirmation of life, with “the Will to Power

Nietzsche will have none of the altruism and self-sacrifice of Christianity; this is all “slave morality” for him. He believes in “hero worship”, and is an admirer of aristocratic morality. He has a great disgust and repulsion for the general masses, which he calls ‘bungled and botched’. Geniuses, not masses, are the goal of evolution. It is the survival of the fittest. Good is that which wins, which survives; bad is that which loses and is eliminated. Life doesn’t need this old slavish virtue to progress, it needs strength and power; humility is to be scorned and pride is to be admired; we do not need altruism but exceptional intellect and genius; there is no equality among the people as some of them are far superior to others; justice is meaningless, it is power that matters. The only task of humanity is to bring men of genius into the world.

We do not need saints or masses; we need Übermensch (‘Superman’ or ‘Overman’). “I teach you the Superman. Man is something that shall be surpassed.”[5] Mankind’s existence is to be justified by the existence of the Superman. The sufferings and pains of the people are meaningless if they are necessary for the production of the great men. It is in time of distress and war that the human potentialities and abilities come to surface and are revealed. Hence, war and conflict is to be encouraged.

Nietzsche is in favor of strict discipline and training. The Superman should be tough, strong and powerful. He should even be cruel, if need arises. Evil is not to be despised. The Superman should have the ability and strength to endure pain, he wishes there to be more evil and more suffering. He is not soft and womanish. Power is the ultimate goal; “What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad? All that comes from weakness.”[6] The Superman lives in constant danger and excitement. “For believe me!—the secret of realizing the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships out into uncharted seas! Live in conflict with your equals and with yourselves! Be robbers and ravagers as long as you cannot be rulers and owners, you men of knowledge! The time will soon be past when you could be content to live concealed in the woods like timid deer!”[7]

Nietzsche objects to the submission of men to the will of God in Christianity. Christianity attempts to tame the heart of man, and make him saintly, but Nietzsche is an admirer of wild, beastly and animal instincts. He values pride, war, anger and revenge, none of which Christianity approves. Nietzsche believes that Christianity is a life-denying force that seeks to suppress and destroy all those characteristics which Nietzsche considers to be a part of a healthy life. “The concept of sin makes us ashamed of our instincts and our sexuality, the concept of faith discourages our curiosity and natural skepticism, and the concept of pity encourages us to value and cherish weakness.”[8] Nietzsche makes the distinction between Christianity as an organized religion and Jesus as a person. “The word "Christianity" is already a misunderstanding -- in reality there has been only one Christian, and he died on the Cross.”[9] He claims that St. Paul had deliberately mutated Christianity into a subversive religion, as a “psychological warfare weapon” against the Romans to avenge the destruction of Jerusalem.

One of the ideas developed by Nietzsche is that of Perspectivism, according to which how we see the truth depends on our perspective. “In so far as the word “knowledge” has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings.—‘Perspectivism.’ It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives and their For and Against. Every drive is a kind of lust to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm.”[10] Some commentators say that Nietzsche does believe in something called a ‘truth’ but that there is no one correct perspective of truth. While some others argue that Nietzsche considers the very notion of truth to be false, and that truth is just the point of view of those people who have the power to enforce their views.

Eternal Recurrence is one of the most famous ideas of Nietzsche, according to which there would be an endless, identical repetition of everything in the universe for an infinite number of times. It is doubtful whether Nietzsche believed this idea of Eternal Recurrence to be a cosmological truth, but in the works he published he treats it as a means of life-affirmation. “In other words, we should aim to live conscious of the fact that each moment will be repeated infinitely, and we should feel only supreme joy at the prospect.”[11] Wikipedia says: “According to Nietzsche, it would require a sincere Amor Fati (Love of Fate), not simply to endure, but to wish for the eternal recurrence of all events exactly as they occurred — all of the pain and joy, the embarrassment and glory. Nietzsche calls the idea "horrifying and paralyzing", and also characterizes the burden of this idea as the "heaviest weight" imaginable (das schwerste Gewicht). The wish for the eternal return of all events would mark the ultimate affirmation of life.”[12]

Nietzsche’s views on women are a subject of great controversy. Taken literally, they represent a severe anti-feminist strain: Women, as he conceives, lack in wisdom, genius, and are ‘creatures who have only dancing and nonsense and finery in their minds!’ They should be property of men; they are like delicate, beautiful birds that must be caged to prevent them from flying away. As would be obvious, Nietzsche is against the emancipation of woman, and regards it as retrogress of women. The men should keep them in control and under fear. If women are given freedom, they abuse it and become intolerable. Nietzsche believes that a real woman, a clever woman would be herself ashamed at these attempts for financial and legal independence. Some recent commentators like Derrida believe that Nietzsche’s statements on women are meant to be a word-game designed to challenge the reader and force him to inspect his own views on the issue.

It would be no exaggeration to say Nietzsche is one of the most widely read philosophers at the moment. No doubt, his superb literary style is one of the chief factors in this regard. I personally am a great admirer of his aphorisms. However, it would be a mistake to believe that the sole quality which Nietzsche possesses is that of style. Diane Collinson writes, “The arresting style and intensity of his writings have made his ideas attractive in a popular and sometimes superficial way so that the intellectual quality of his thought has sometimes been over-looked.”[13] And again, “Nietzsche’s brilliant and powerful style is perhaps his chief claim to fame. His short sentences have a poetic intensity that forces one to dwell on them and a vitality that is almost a physical presence on the page. He has been called the philosopher’s philosopher and also the non-philosopher’s philosopher.”[14]

Walter Kaufmann comments in this regard:

“It is evident at once that Nietzsche is far superior to Kant and Hegel as a stylist; but it also seems that as a philosopher he represents a sharp decline—and men have not been lacking who have not considered him a philosopher at all—because he had no “system.” Yet this argument is hardly cogent. Schelling and Hegel, Spinoza and Aquinas had their systems; in Kant's and Plato's case the word is far less applicable; and of the many important philosophers who very definitely did not have systems one need only mention Socrates and many of the pre-Socratics. Not only can one defend Nietzsche on this score—how many philosophers today have systems?—but one must add that he had strong philosophic reasons for not having a system.”[15]

In any case, the influence Nietzsche has exerted, particularly on continental philosophy, is remarkable. He is regarded as one of the founders of existentialism, and postmodernists claim him to be one of the early postmodern thinkers. Nietzsche was indeed right when he wrote in the preface of The Anti-Christ, “Only the day after tomorrow belongs to me. Some are born posthumously.”


[1] Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, "Why I Am a Destiny"
[2] Diane Collinson, Fifty Major Philosophers, (Routledge, London, 1998), page 119
[3] Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, Pocket Books, page 447
[4] Nietzsche, The Gay Science
[5] Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
[6] Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ
[7] Nietzsche, The Gay Science
[8] Spark Notes, Nietzsche: Themes, Arguments, and Ideas,
[9] Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, aph. 39
[10] Nietzsche, The Will to Power
[11] Spark Notes, Nietzsche: Themes, Arguments, and Ideas
[12] Wikipedia, Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche
[13] Diane Collinson, Fifty Major Philosophers, (Routledge, London, 1998), page 119
[14] Ibid, page 122
[15] Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, p. 79