Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900) is perhaps the most controversial and most misunderstood philosopher. He was a German who spoke of the Superman (not Clark Kent), which led some to believe that he was a Nazi.
Nietzsche was influenced by the philosophy of Schopenhauer, whom he discovered as a young man. Schopenhauer's pessimism and atheism was right up Friedrich's alley, and he took it to a nihilistic extreme. His controversial phrase “God is dead” also got him into trouble in his lifetime as well as posthumously. However, there is much more to Nietzsche than his provocative views on the Superman and God.
Many dismiss Nietzsche's later works as symptomatic of increasing mental illness. Others hail him as an original and provocative thinker who influenced subsequent generations of philosophers.
High-strung, overly sensitive, and unlucky in love, Nietzsche was plagued with physical and emotional problems throughout his life and tragically went insane, suffering a mental breakdown after watching a man beat a horse. He ran to the defense of the animal and collapsed into a madness from which he never recovered. He spent the last decade of his life under the care of his mother, and upon her death, his sister. His sister was an anti-Semite and a kind of proto-fascist, and her role in promulgating his legacy contributed to tagging Nietzsche with the Nazi moniker.
Nietzsche was not a philosopher who espoused a cohesive theory such as Empiricism or Idealism. He was more like a ranting talk radio host, entertainingly and effectively railing against his pet peeves: Christianity and Western civilization.
Nietzsche called Christian morality “slave morality” and believed it to be a destructive societal ill that made sheep out of people. In its place, he advocated the philosophy of the Superman. Nietzsche's Superman would achieve the greatest in human potential. His morality and values would be “beyond good and evil” (a title of one of his many books) and he would rise above “the herd,” as Nietzsche called the great-unwashed masses. The Superman does not bow before the power of the church or other authority figures. The Superman does not, lemming-like, follow the throng and conform. He plans each charted course, each careful step along the byway. He is not imprisoned by established mores. He makes his own ethical decisions based on his morality, not one imposed by the Church and society. Nietzsche did not believe that any Supermen had yet burst onto the scene, but he listed Jesus, Socrates, Shakespeare, and Napoleon as role models for any Superman in training.
Nietzsche's Superman rejects the traits of humility and passivity, believing that they are encouraged as virtues by Christianity while they are really devices that the powers-that-be use to control us. The Superman focuses on this world rather than the next.
The Nazis seized upon Nietzsche's Superman principle and hence all the bad press followed. But Nietzsche was not interested in controlling or conquering others. He was advocating mastering yourself and achieving your personal potential without allowing yourself to be inhibited by a repressive society.
The Birth of Tragedy
For a guy with a lot of problems, Nietzsche managed to be a fairly prolific writer. Though he never hit the bestseller lists in his lifetime, he was confident that he would be a philosopher for the ages. His first book,
Nietzsche's favorite form of philosophizing was the aphorism. An aphorism is a short proverb-like observation, usually only a few lines. Most of his books are collections of his aphorisms on a variety of topics. His first collection of aphorisms is called
Another famous collection of maxims is called
Nietzsche's theory of eternal recurrence is a strange suggestion to come from a staunch atheist. Nietzsche was an accomplished poet and literary figure, and there is much figurative flourish in his prose and his philosophy, so it is possible he did not really believe this to be literally true. Certainly, eternal recurrence is one of the least attractive prospects for an afterlife.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Nietzsche's most famous work is called
Zarathustra is the quintessential Nietzschean Superman and again brings up eternal recurrence, suggesting that we should strive to create for ourselves the kind of life we could not mind repeating over and over again.
The prologue of
In youth, we are all camels. Born into life cute little blank slates, we have the weight of the world heaped upon us. We are beasts of burden, carrying all that society and Christianity have imposed on our innocent souls, preventing us from achieving our full potential and finding true bliss. In adulthood, we are lions, and we venture out into the world. The more stuff thrown at us by the diabolical forces of society and religion, the stronger we are. It was Nietzsche who uttered the famous aphorism “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
What is the theory of eternal recurrence?
Eternal recurrence poses the possibility that we may be destined to live our lives over and over again with no variation, no possibility to make changes or right wrongs. Nietzsche, an atheist, was perhaps indulging in poetic license by proposing an alternative myth to what he perceived to be the unhealthy mythology of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The lion is confronted by a dragon with the curious name “Thou shalt.” The fire-breathing, menacing monster is all the “dos and don'ts” of society and religion that have stifled us in our lifetimes. The lion slays the nasty dragon and is transformed into a child, innocent and uncorrupted. Paradoxically, this childlike state should be the goal of the fully matured adult who has survived the slings and arrows, remained broken but unbowed, and slayed the dragon to emerge the triumphant Superman. This is Nietzsche's philosophy in a nutshell.
Beyond Good and Evil
Nietzsche uses the book
On the Genealogy of Morals, A Polemic
His Other Writings
Nietzsche was unlucky in love and had several marriage proposals turned down. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, his tormented life, he was able to produce a powerful body of work that rattled the Victorian cage and continues to both inspire and outrage with equal measure.
Becoming progressively provocative, Nietzsche's next book The
All about Nietzsche
Nietzsche offers his own “Everything Nietzsche Book” with
Nietzsche wasn't quite the destiny he hoped he would be, but his legacy did deeply influence the twentieth century in both good and bad ways. Of course, the worst exponent of Nietzsche was his sister, who was an anti-Semitic fascist who later became chummy with both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Through selective interpretation, it was easy for the Nazis to adapt and corrupt Nietzsche's rants to justify their own ends.