Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (who was famous for the quote "God is dead") was the son and grandson of Lutheran ministers. He was expected to follow their path, but the precocious young Nietzsche had his own ideas. And these were enormously influential in the 20th century.
Born in 1844 in a small town near Leipzig, Germany, Nietzsche excelled in school, played and composed music and was a fan of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays. His papers on philology (the structure and development of languages) were so impressive that young Nietzsche was called to be the chair of philology at the University of Basel (Switzerland) before he even finished his doctoral dissertation at the University of Leipzig (Germany). He was only 24.
The Nietzsche we know, however, isn't the brilliant student of his early years, but rather the iconoclastic, mustachioed philosopher at the height of his intellectual and creative power. The author of books and essays with wickedly provocative titles like "The Anti-Christ" and "Beyond Good and Evil," Nietzsche said that the purpose of his work was to "overthrow idols" and "ideals." He had no patience for religious or philosophical views that looked beyond the earthly, human experience, and gleefully attacked conventional ways of thinking (including classical philosophy) with dagger-like strokes of his pen.
That said, Nietzsche isn't for everybody. His prose is playful and musical, but his meaning is often opaque. For example, Nietzsche loved to write aphorisms — short, pithy truisms that would fit nicely on a bumper sticker. But the aphorisms, while clever, often present more questions than answers. Here are a few from the opening chapter of "Twilight of the Idols":
All truth is simple." — Isn't that doubly a lie?
What? Is humanity just God's mistake? Or God just a mistake of humanity?
Reading Nietzsche, it's clear that you're in the presence of a rare genius, but unraveling the meaning of his grand pronouncements has kept scholars arguing for more than a century.
To help us make sense of Nietzsche's unconventional mind, we reached out to Dale Wilkerson, a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and author of the excellent entry on Friedrich Nietzsche in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Here are five quotes from Nietzsche, starting with the most famous (and infamous) of them all.
1. "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him."
These notoriously controversial lines from "The Gay Science" (1882) are spoken as part of a strange, allegorical tale. In aphorism 125 of the book, Nietzsche writes of a "madman" who wanders into the town market crying, "I seek God! I seek God!" The crowd of unbelievers mock and laugh at the madman, who turns on them and responds, "Whither is God? I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers."
To a person of faith, Nietzsche's claim that "God is dead" sounds like an atheist philosopher claiming the victory of humanism over religion, or reason over superstition. But Wilkerson argues that Nietzsche isn't saying that humanism or Nietzsche himself has "killed" God.
"There's nothing triumphal about what Nietzsche is saying here," says Wilkerson. "What he's pointing to is what he thinks is a historical fact — European society is no longer as dependent upon religion as it once was."
The second half of the 19th century was a time of tremendous social, economic and political upheaval. Railroads moved people, goods and ideas like never before. Old kingdoms gave way to the rise of the nation state. And Darwin challenged the traditional religious basis of creation with his earth-shattering theories of evolution.
When Nietzsche says that "God is dead," he's not just saying that the authority of the Church has been nullified (though he believed that), but rather, there is no such thing anymore as an "absolute." No philosophical absolutes, no logical absolutes, no absolutes in nature, and certainly no religious absolutes like absolute "good" or absolute "evil."
"All of that has been disrupted by the 19th century," says Wilkerson.
Does that mean that in the absence of absolutes, Nietzsche advocated for strict utilitarianism (actions are "right" if they promote happiness for the most people) or wanton hedonism (the pursuit of pleasure is the highest good)? Absolutely not.
"Nietzsche believes that God is dead, therefore we have to challenge ourselves to become 'noble' and it's up to each of us to figure out how to do that," says Wilkerson. "We don't do that by purely seeking pleasure, though."
Bonus quote: "After coming into contact with a religious man I always feel I must wash my hands."
2. "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."
You might be surprised to learn that Nietzsche came up with that line, too, sometimes written as "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." But what exactly did Nietzsche mean by this statement, which sounds like a coffee mug cliche about resilience or puts you in mind of a certain Kelly Clarkson song?
First of all, it's "objectively not true," says Wilkerson. There are plenty of things that might not kill you, but can leave you weaker (physically, mentally or emotionally) than before they came around. Nietzsche himself was reduced to a "mental vegetable" for the last 11 years of his life, says Wilkerson, after suffering a breakdown and two strokes probably caused by syphilis. The disease didn't kill him immediately, but it didn't make him stronger, either.
Instead, Wilkerson sees Nietzsche's statement as a continuation of the themes introduced with the "death of God." Nietzsche is often accused of being a nihilist, which is someone who rejects conventional morality and religiosity under the belief that life, at its core, is meaningless.
"Nietzsche admits that his work raises some difficult issues," says Wilkerson. "His work could be considered nihilistic, but Nietzsche says that he's confronting nihilism head on. Losing the idea of God could be depressing and some would consider that to be nihilistic, but Nietzsche insists that it's not."
To Nietzsche, the death of God and other "absolutes" doesn't make life meaningless. It frees us to create new values and paradigms for finding meaning. Out of the ashes of religion and conventional morality, Nietzsche foretells the rise of the Übermensch or "overman" (sometimes translated as "superman") who will be "stronger" psychologically and physically than what came before.
Bonus quote: "He who cannot obey himself will be commanded. That is the nature of living creatures."
3. "It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified."
If God is "dead," then what do we raise up in place of his absolute authority? As a late-19th century philosopher, you might expect Nietzsche to land on the side of reason and logic. But cold reason and pure logic were just as empty and meaningless for Nietzsche as religion. Explaining why something is logically "true" doesn't necessarily imbue it with meaning.
For Nietzsche, the highest expression of the human spirit was art. Nietzsche was a musician and poet and was once very close friends with the German composer Richard Wagner. Before they had a falling out over Wagner's nationalism and anti-Semitism, Nietzsche was enthralled by the composer's sweeping artistic vision. The above quote comes from a book called "The Birth of Tragedy" (1872), which Nietzsche wrote when he was still very much under Wagner's spell.
So, what does Nietzsche mean when he says that existence is only "justified" as an "aesthetic" phenomenon"?
"Human beings are unique in that we create a world for ourselves," says Wilkerson. "We create whole systems of beliefs. We create gods, we create rituals, we create social/moral norms. All of that is an aesthetic phenomenon, but that's everything for Nietzsche. We wouldn't be who we are without that kind of creativity."
Art, for Nietzsche, isn't just a creative exercise or outlet, but a way of accessing a deeper sense of understanding beyond mere logic and reason. He was a huge fan of Greek tragedies and identified with the "Dionysian" spirit of unbridled passions and a sense of wonder rather than the cool rationality of Western philosophy.
Bonus quote: "Without music, life would be a mistake."
4. "The world is the will to power and nothing more, and you yourself are also this will to power and nothing more."
Now we're getting into the really deep (and confusing) stuff. Scholars agree that one of Nietzsche's key doctrines is something called "will to power," but that's about all they agree upon. Nietzsche doesn't lay out his arguments in the traditional philosophical fashion, and often prefers questions over answers, so it's rare that he says something is unequivocally "good" or "bad." But in a late book called "The Anti-Christ" (written in 1888, published in 1895), he writes:
What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness.
What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.
As a philosophy, that sounds kind of brutal — power is good and weakness is bad. It's no wonder that Adolph Hitler latched onto (and misinterpreted) Nietzsche as his favorite German philosopher. But Wilkerson sees "will to power" in a different light, as Nietzsche's way of trying to explain how values change over time. Since nothing is absolute, including values or morality, then what is underlying the force that causes them to shift?
In his notebooks, Nietzsche explains "will to power" as a primordial force that governs all interactions, on both a cosmic and human level:
Wilkerson interprets this to mean that human beings have a twofold drive: the first is to preserve themselves, but the second (and perhaps more important) is to enhance themselves. That's what Nietzsche means by "extending" the will to power. And there's a constant game of tug-of-war between those two drives. Sometimes enhancement comes at the risk of preservation and sometimes preservation hinders enhancement.
How does this connect back to values?
"Values change over the course of time, and if you investigate the nature of any specific value, they reveal an ancient will to power," says Wilkerson. "They reveal how people try to enhance themselves and preserve themselves at the same time."
Bonus quote: "Your will and your values you set upon the river of becoming. What the people believe to be good and evil reveals to me an ancient will to power."
5. "And this secret life itself spoke to me: 'Behold,' it said, 'I am that which must always overcome itself.'"
That quote is from "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" (1883), a philosophical novel in which Nietzsche uses the ancient Persian prophet Zarathustra as a mouthpiece for his philosophies. One of the themes of the novel hearkens back to the "death of God" conundrum. Mankind has arrived at a philosophical crisis that requires a thorough questioning not only of religious morality, but of the entire Western philosophical tradition.
Nietzsche took up this theme again in "Beyond Good and Evil" (1886) and concluded that the growing dissatisfaction with religion has created a "magnificent tension of the spirit... the likes of which the earth has never known: with such a tension in our bow we can now shoot at the furthest goals."
That "furthest goal" is the Übermensch ("overman"), the next evolution of mankind that "overcomes" our current selves. Hitler equated the Übermensch with the Aryan physical ideal of tall, blond and blue-eyed. But Nietzsche's Übermensch is a psychological hero who is brave enough to forge his own moral paradigm through rigorous self-examination and honesty in order to (in modern lingo) "live his best life."
The secret revealed to Zarathustra (by life itself) is that life is all about "overcoming" oneself to become something greater. The problem, says Nietzsche, is that our psychological strength is always being sapped by the polar opposite of the Übermensch, the enemy of self-actualization that Nietzsche calls "the last man." The last man only seeks pleasure and comfort, not the hard work that it takes to overcome ourselves.
"We have to plumb the depths of our psyche and ask ourselves tough questions and be prepared to deal with whatever honest answers that we can formulate," says Wilkerson. "In 'Beyond Good and Evil,' Nietzsche extols the virtue of honesty. It's one of the most recent virtues and perhaps the most important."
Bonus quote: "Have I made myself understood?...'Absolutely not, sir!' So let's start at the beginning."
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