Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher and son of a Lutheran pastor. Many years ago, while researching in the public library I noticed some graffiti on the bathroom wall:
Nietzsche: God is dead. And we killed him.
God: Nietzsche is dead.
This pretty well sums up the debate between some religious persons and admirers of Nietzsche. Like or dislike him, Nietzsche’s work certainly is intelligent, contemptuous (particularly towards women and Christians), grandiose and wide-ranging.
He often used metaphor sprinkled with aphorisms and his, at times, witty works prefigured the postmodern stance of sociological thinkers like Michel Foucault in that Nietzsche insisted moral values aren’t etched in stone.
For Nietzsche, morals (except, perhaps, his own) are an ever-changing cultural project. Moral values and beliefs about truth change over time and are colored by psychological, social and political forces, so moral truths are never absolute nor permanent.
An exception to this might be found in Nietzsche’s cosmology, where he seems to forward his own cosmological truth—the notion of the eternal return. But this wasn’t his doctrine. It had already been articulated in Stoicism. And some say he wasn’t asserting the idea but merely considering, mentioning or elaborating on it.
Another important aspect of Nietzschian thought comes with his distinction between the Apollonian and Dionysian. I remember watching David Bowie on MuchMusic back in the late 1990s. Unlike former years where Bowie rarely did interviews, at age 50 he pretty much hung out at the TV station for the better part of a day, informally chatting with host Daniel Richler.
At one point Bowie answered a question by saying, “Apollonian… Dionysian… look it up mate!” as he turned his head, smiling at the camera. I can’t remember the exact question he was answering. Probably something about crafting his art or perhaps his perspective on life. But I remember being struck by his mentioning these Nietzschian categories. And in fact, Bowie does seem to be a synthesis of these two aspects of life, which Carl Jung also wrote about.¹
Nietzsche believed that great writers are able to commune with other great writers, living and dead. He apparently went clinically insane before dying of syphilis. Some fundamentalist religious writers have used this as alleged “proof” that he was punished for advocating a Godless outlook. Other writers have been more compassionate and less judgmental. Perhaps Nietzsche’s madness arose, in part, from others’ inability to understand him.
Along these lines, in Thus Spake Zarathustra his character Zarathustra encounters an ape man whom others will forever mistake for himself.
Thus slowly wandering through many peoples and divers cities, did Zarathustra return by round-about roads to his mountains and his cave. And behold, thereby came he unawares also to the gate of the GREAT CITY. Here, however, a foaming fool, with extended hands, sprang forward to him and stood in his way. It was the same fool whom the people called “the ape of Zarathustra:” for he had learned from him something of the expression and modulation of language, and perhaps liked also to borrow from the store of his wisdom.²
This reflects Nietzsche’s belief that the common unthinking herd is inadequate in comparison to the self-determining man of free will, whom he called the Overman (sometimes translated from the German as Superman).
“Man is to ape as Overman shall be to man.” And, as suggested above, this brazen claim, arguably Nietzsche’s moral agenda, could be seen as an exception to Nietzsche’s belief that all moral truths are relative.
With regard to Christianity, Nietzsche saw the Christian ideal of asceticism as a type of sickly moral weakness. He argued that Christians are too cowardly to express their innate “will to power” and too hypocritical to innocently enjoy their desires, sexual and otherwise.
The will to power is not an easy idea to understand. In the best possible light, it could be seen as creatively expressing mastery and joyfully affirming worldly existence instead of denying it.
Commenting on Nietzsche’s work on the master-slave dichotomy, Walter Kauffman doesn’t believe that Nietzsche favors any one aspect of those skewed power relations, but rather, is simply observing a historical dynamic.
A long standing assumption about Nietzsche is that he preferred master over slave morality. However, the Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann rejected this interpretation, writing that Nietzsche’s analyses of these two types of morality were only used in a descriptive and historic sense, they were not meant for any kind of acceptance or glorifications. On the other hand, it is clear from his own writings that Nietzsche wanted the victory of master morality. He linked the “salvation and future of the human race with the unconditional dominance” of master morality and called master morality “a higher order of values, the noble ones, those that say Yes to life, those that guarantee the future.”³
I remember in my undergraduate days reading that, as Nietzsche says, the slave may acquiesce but develops a resentment toward his or her master. The full trajectory of this unsettled dynamic is explained here.
In the 20th century, Hitler interpreted the will to power by envisioning himself as the head of a master Aryan race. The relation between Nietzsche’s thought and Nazism is a topic of much debate. Some say that Nietzsche wasn’t a proto-Nazi and that Hitler distorted his philosophy.4 Others say there’s little difference between Nietzsche’s views and the Nazi agenda.5
This controversy aside, it seems Nietzsche’s lasting contribution to the history of ideas is his willingness to question, to cut through and redefine cultural values in a way that he believed was accurate, honest, and which encouraged a healthier approach to life.
As mentioned above, however, the social groups he derided would hardly agree that he transcended his own cultural limitations. And this is a valid critique, pointing to Nietzsche’s greatest, unacceptable flaw.
¹ In this video order and exuberance battle it out during Bowie’s early performance of “Space Oddity.”
² Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1892) trans. Thomas Common, Chapter LI, “On Passing-By“.
4 See “Nietzsche’s Will to Power,” Shane Wahl, Philosophy at Froyd.net, 2006 (Link has become broken since last revision of June 22, 2010 @ 12:38:14).
5 See “Hitler, Nietzsche and religion,” The Cafeteria is Closed, Wednesday, June 08, 2005 (Link has become broken since last revision of June 22, 2010 @ 12:38:14).
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