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.

The Superman

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, The Birth of Tragedy, was a tribute to ancient Greek society and philosophy and set up the differences between Dionysian and Apollonian aspects of human nature. Dionysus was the Greek god of all manner of sensual delights. Nietzsche felt that he would be a better model than Apollo, a rather dour and serious fellow. He believed that European culture was far too Apollonian and a dose of Dionysian debauchery would be beneficial for all.

His Aphorisms

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 Human, All Too Human.

Another famous collection of maxims is called The Gay Science, refering to the medieval songs of the French troubadours. This book is famous for one famous Nietzsche-ism, his audacious proclamation that “God is dead.” This deliberately provocative statement is designed to shake things up, to get people to think more about their freedom and human potential in the real world, and to not dread divine punishment or sacrifice happiness in this life in the hope of being rewarded in the next.

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 Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It is a flowery, frenetic polemic, a flamboyant attack on the Judeo Christian tradition. It is poetic, metaphoric, and passionate. It is an allegorical tale about the spiritual awakening of the titular Zarathustra.

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 Thus Spoke Zarathustra begins with a fable that sums up Nietzsche's views on the objective of the individual in society. In the fable, a camel morphs into a lion, the lion slays a dragon named “Thou shalt,” and then the lion morphs into a child.

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 Beyond Good and Evil to express his philosophy on philosophy itself and other philosophers. He holds academic types in disdain and champions a more active and aggressive approach. Nietzsche felt philosophers should be willing to take risks and live life in the philosophical fast lane if they are to make a difference and rattle the cage. The notorious Nietzschean “will to power” is triumphed in this book. He does not believe that the morality imposed on society is a valid one, and real life occurs in a realm beyond good and evil. The will to power, in a relatively benign interpretation, can simply mean “go for the gusto,” and “be all that you can be.” Its darker side disputes the accepted belief that compassion and protection of the weak and disenfranchised is a virtue. Other people may get hurt along the way as you exert your will to power, and you may get hurt by another's rampaging will, but hey, that's life according to Nietzsche. These notions are ripe for the perverting by everyone from the bully on your block to the bully pulpit of a tyrant. Just as bad things have happened in the name of God, bad things have been done by certain Nietzsche-philes over the years.

On the Genealogy of Morals, A Polemic

On the Genealogy of Morals, A Polemic continues the themes set forth in Beyond Good and Evil. Again, Nietzsche accuses Christian morality of being a means to control the cowering populace. Like the stereotype of an overprotective mother, the Church and society successfully use guilt as a weapon and means to control people. Nietzsche also takes the opportunity to launch into a vicious attack on the priesthood, branding them all a craven and cowardly class of men who delight in abusing the power they wield over the even more craven and cowardly flock.

His Other Writings

In The Case of Wagner, A Musician's Problem, Nietzsche ostensibly uses the device of musical criticism to attack his former mentor and friend Richard Wagner and everything he represents. Wagner, who is best known today as a classical composer, was also a political activist and by all accounts, a big meanie.

In Twilight of the Idols, or How One Philosophizes with a Hammer, Nietzsche turns his poison pen on just about every major philosopher: Socrates, Plato, Kant, and Rousseau are called decadent. The angry Nietzsche praises Caesar, Napoleon, and, of all people, the Sophists!

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 Antichrist, Curse on Christianity, Nietzsche laments the corruption of the Roman Empire by the destructive influence of Christianity and beats the dead horse that Christianity is an unhealthy creed that undermines all that is noble in man.

All about Nietzsche

Nietzsche offers his own “Everything Nietzsche Book” with Ecce Homo, How One Becomes What One Is that is part autobiography and part critical study of all the books he had written in his career. He outrageously titles some of the chapters “Why I Am So Wise,” “Why I Am So Clever,” and “Why I Write Such Good Books.” Nietzsche praised himself as a sensitive man, a fellow who knew how to eat right and take good care of himself, and someone who is a bold visionary thinker who will only be appreciated by a few discriminating readers and thinkers. In the last chapter, called “Why I Am a Destiny,” he claims that his legacy will be the weapon of mass destruction that will destroy polite society and create a new world order. He hopes that the libertine pagan god Dionysus will usurp Jesus as the influential deity for the next millennium.

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.

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