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Friedrich Nietzsche

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Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (October 15, 1844 - August 25, 1900 EV) was a highly influential German philosopher. Aleister Crowley made Nietzsche a saint in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica and wrote in Magick Without Tears that "Nietzsche may be regarded as one of our prophets..."

Table of contents

His Life

Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844 EV in the small town of Röcken bei Lützen, not too far from Leipzig, Prussia (now mainly part of Poland). He was born on the 49th birthday of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia and was thus named after him. His father was a Lutheran pastor and died when Nietzsche was only four years old, leaving him to be raised by his mother and three sisters. He was very pious as a young child. A brilliant student, he became chair of classical philology at the University of Basel in 1869 at the age of only 24.

At Basel, Nietzsche found little satisfaction in life among his philology colleagues, and he established closer intellectual ties to the historians Franz Overbeck and Jacob Burkhardt, whose lectures he attended. When the Franco-Prussian war erupted, Nietzsche left Basel and, being disqualified for other services due to his citizenship status, volunteered as a medical orderly on active duty. His time in the military was short, but he experienced much. He witnessed the traumatic effects of battle, taking close care of wounded soldiers, but he soon contracted diphtheria and dysentery himself and subsequently experienced a painful variety of health difficulties for the remainder of his life. Upon return to Basel, instead of waiting to heal, he pushed headlong into a more fervent schedule of study than ever before. In 1872, he published his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, but a biting critical reaction by the young and promising philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, as well as its innovative views of the ancient Greeks, dampened the book's reception among scholars.

In 1879, Nietzsche retired from his position at Basel due to his continued poor health. From 1880 until his collapse in January 1889, Nietzsche led a wandering existence as a "stateless" person, writing most of his major works during this period. His fame and influence came later, despite the interference of his sister Elizabeth, who published arbitrary, uncontextual selections of his works.

Nietzsche endured periods of illness during his adult life. In 1889, after the completion of Ecce Homo, his health rapidly declined until he collapsed. At that moment, he is said to have tearfully embraced a horse in Italy because it had been beaten by its owner. From that moment on he never recovered.

Nietzsche spent the last ten years of his life insane, in the care of his sister Elizabeth, and unaware of the immense success of his works. The cause of Nietzsche's condition has come to be regarded as undetermined. Doctors later in his life said they were not so sure about the initial diagnosis of syphilis because he lacked the typical symptoms. While the story of syphilis indeed became generally accepted in the twentieth century, recent research in the Journal of Medical Biography shows that syphilis is not consistent with Nietzsche's symptoms, and that the contention that he had the disease originated in anti-Nietzschean tracts.

His Works and Ideas

Nietzsche is famous for his rejection of what he calls "slave morality" (which he felt reflected the inverse of the "will to power" and a perversion of useful altruism); his attacks on Christianity (the most well known, if not poorly understood, of which occurs in the phrase "God is dead!", taken from the eponymous character of his work Thus spake Zarathustra (Also sprach Zarathustra) after he meets an old saint in the woods); his origination of the Übermensch concept (translated as "Overman" or "Superman"); his embrace of a sort of a-rationalism; and another idea he called "the Will to Power" (Wille zur Macht). Nietzsche was strongly influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer and his concept of "the Will to live". H.L. Mencken's book on Nietzsche described his work as an early effort to reconcile the philosophical implications of Charles Darwin's "survival of the fittest" evolutionary theory with contemporary moral and ethical systems.

In many respects his thinking anticipated the "heredity" side of the "Nature versus nurture" debate in psychology. Nietzsche's thoughts also anticipated the "biological world view" and genetic interpretation of social behavior in the modern discipline of sociobiology (c.f. one can find updated "Nietzsche" in A New Morality From Science: Beyondism by Dr. Raymond Cattell, which draws from concepts elucidated in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis by Harvard professor Dr. Edward Osborne Wilson as well as other emergent disciplines such as "medical anthropology.") Nietzsche's concept of the Übermensch, often mistaken for a biological "breeding" upwards towards the "higher man", is indirectly addressed in biological interpretations of human history, such as Dr. Elmer Pendell's Why Civilizations Self-Destruct or Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West.

The "Will to Power"

One of Nietzsche's central concepts is "the Will to Power" (Wille zur Macht), a process of expansion and venting of creative energy that he believed was the basic driving force of nature. He believed it to be the fundamental causal power in the world: the driving force of all natural phenomena and the dynamic to which all other causal powers can be reduced. That is, Nietzsche in part hoped Will to Power could be a "theory of everything," providing the ultimate foundations for explanations of everything from whole societies, to individual organisms, down to mere lumps of matter. In contrast to the "theories of everything" attempted in physics, Nietzsche's was teleological in nature.

Nietzsche perhaps developed the Will to Power concept furthest with regards to living organisms, and it is there where the concept is perhaps easiest to understand. There, the Will to Power is taken as an animal's most fundamental instinct or drive, even more fundamental than the will to self-preservation. The Will to Power is something like the desire to exert one's will in self-overcoming, although it may well be unconscious. Arthur C. Danto says that "aggression" is at least sometimes an approximate synonym. However, Nietzsche's ideas of aggression are almost always meant as aggression toward oneself, as the energy one motivates toward self-mastery. In any case, since the Will to Power is fundamental, any other drives are to be reduced to it; the "will to survive" (i.e. the survival instinct) that biologists (at least in Nietzsche's day) thought to be fundamental, for example, was in this light a manifestation of the Will to Power.

Not just instincts but also higher level behaviors (even in humans) were to be reduced to the Will to Power. This includes both such apparently harmful acts as physical violence, lying, and domination, on one hand, and such apparently non-harmful acts as gift-giving, love, and praise on the other. In Beyond Good and Evil, he claims that philosophers' "will to truth" (i.e., their apparent desire to dispassionately seek objective truth) is actually nothing more than a manifestation of their Will to Power; when it is not, the will to truth is nothing more than nihilism.

As indicated above, the Will to Power is meant to explain more than just the behavior of an individual person or animal. The Will to Power can also be the explanation for why water flows as it does, why plants grow, and why social classes behave as they do.

Similar ideas in others' thought

With respect to the Will to Power, Nietzsche was strongly influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer and his concept of "the Will to live", but he explicitly denied the identity of the two ideas. Other ideas similar to Nietzsche's are Taoism, which holds that to follow one's own natural will brings about a happier existence, and Hegel's theory of history.

Criticism of the idea

Although the idea may seem harsh to some, Nietzsche saw the "will to power" -- or, as he famously put it, the ability to "say yes! to life" -- as life-affirming. Creatures affirm the instinct in exerting their energy, in venting their strength. The suffering borne of conflict between competing wills and the efforts to overcome one's environment is not evil, but a part of existence to be embraced. It signifies the healthy expression of the natural order, whereas failing to act in one's self-interest is seen as a 'sickness'. Enduring satisfaction and pleasure result from living creatively, overcoming oneself, and successfully exerting the Will to Power.


Nietzsche's work addresses ethics from several perspectives; in today's terms, we might say his remarks pertain to meta-ethics, normative ethics, and descriptive ethics.

As far as meta-ethics is concerned, Nietzsche can perhaps most usefully be classified as a moral skeptic; that is, he claims that all ethical statements are false, because any kind of correspondence between ethical statements and "moral facts" is illusory. (This is part of a more general claim that all facts are false, roughly because none of them more than appear to correspond to reality.) Instead, ethical statements (like all statements) are mere "interpretations."

Sometimes, Nietzsche may seem to have very definite opinions on what is moral or immoral. Note, however, that Nietzsche's moral opinions may be explained without attributing to him the claim that they are true. For Nietzsche, after all, we needn't disregard a statement merely because it is false. On the contrary, he often claims that falsehood is essential for "life".

In the juncture between normative ethics and descriptive ethics, Nietzsche distinguishes between "master morality" and "slave morality". Although he recognizes that not everyone holds either scheme in a pure fashion, he presents them in contrast to one another. Some of the contrasts in master vs. slave morality:

Nietzsche's assessment of both the antiquity and resultant impediments presented by the ethical and moralistic teachings of the world's monotheistic religions eventually led him to his own epiphany about the nature of God and morality, resulting in his work Also sprach Zarathustra.

Nietzsche is also well-known for the statement "God is dead." While in popular belief it is Nietzsche himself who blatantly made this declaration, it was actually placed into the mouth of a character, a "madman", in The Gay Science, and later was proclaimed by Nietzsche's Zarathustra. This largely misunderstood statement does not proclaim a physical death, but a natural end to the belief in God being the foundation of western cosmology. It is more of an observation than a declaration. Nietzsche believed this "death" would eventually undermine the foundations of morality and lead to moral relativism and nihilism. To avoid this, he believed in re-evaluating the foundations of morality and placing them on a natural foundation.


According to Dr. Norman Ravitch, professor of history at U.C. Riverside, "What Spengler, Toynbee, and Nietzsche can teach us is how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, despite superficial differences, were all forged and/or altered by a religious revolution in ancient Iran associated with the name Zoroaster or Zarathustra. The central notions of dualism between Good and Evil, Salvation through an Expected Messiah, and the Final Battle between St. Michael and Satan animate these world religions and their devotees. Pragmatism, reason, and common sense have little place in these primitive Semitic world views. All conflict is interpreted as part of a cosmic struggle between Good and Evil and there is no room for compromise or tolerance."

In his important work The Anti-Christ Nietzsche frontally attacked German scholarly Christianity for what he called its "transvaluation" of healthy instinctive values. He went beyond agnostic and atheistic thinkers of the Enlightenment who felt that Christianity may simply be an untrue religion to claiming it may have been deliberately propagated as an inherently bad and subversive religion (or in late 20th century parlance: a "psychological warfare weapon" or "ideological computer virus") within the Roman Empire by the Apostle Paul as a form of covert revenge for the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple during the Jewish War. However, in The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche has a remarkably high view of Jesus, claiming the scholars of the day fail to pay any attention to the man, Jesus, and only look to their construction, Christ. According to the American writer H.L. Mencken, Nietzsche felt that the religion of the ancient Greeks of the heroic and classical era was superior to Christianity because it portrayed strong, heroic, smart, and muscular men as role models and did not try to demonize healthy natural desires, such as creativity and writing poetry.

Nietzsche's works have also been valued as a religious "deprogramming tool", such as in the large tome Which Way Western Man? by former American Christian minister and co-founder of the ACLU William Gayley Simpson, in which he recounts in great theological detail how Nietzsche's works allowed him to see the light of Darwin and overcome the dysfunctional "slave morality" that had been programmed into him by society and co-religionists.


Nietzsche's sister Elizabeth Nietzsche's heavily edited Nietzsche's work in order to promote him as a proto-Nazi thinker (she was herself an ardent German nationalist and pro-Nazi); this bastardization was largely to blame for Nietzsche being associated in the 1930s with the Nazis, who primarily took Elizabeth's deliberately misconstrued versions of his works as their source.

It is worth noting that Nietzsche's thought largely stands opposed to Nazism. In particular, Nietzsche despised anti-Semitism (which partially led to his falling out with composer Richard Wagner) and nationalism, took a dim view of German culture as it was in his time, and derided both the state and populism. He was also far from being a racist, believing that the 'vigor' of any population could only be increased by mixing with others. In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche says, "... the concept of 'pure blood' is the opposite of a harmless concept."

As for the idea of the "blond beast," Walter Kaufman has this to say: "The 'blond beast' is not a racial concept and does not refer to the 'Nordic race' of which the Nazis later made so much. Nietzsche specifically refers to Arabs and Japanese, Romans and Greeks, no less than ancient Teutonic tribes when he first introduces the term ... and the 'blondness' obviously refers to the beast, the lion, rather than the kind of man."

While some of his writings on "the Jewish question" were critical of the Jewish population in Europe, he also praised the strength of the Jewish people, and this criticism was equally, if not more strongly, applied to the English, the Germans, and the rest of Europe. He also valorised strong leadership, and it was this last tendency that the Nazis took up.

Whilst his use by the Nazis was inaccurate, it should not be supposed that he was a good democrat either. One of the things that he seems to have detested the most about Christianity was its emphasis on pity and how this leads to the elevation of the lower classes, the weak and the disabled. He wrote in The Anti-Christ, "The weak and the deformed shall perish: first principle of our philosophy. And we shall aid their demise." Similar comments can be found in Ecce Homo and The Will to Power; it could be argued that he would have agreed with the Nazis' sterilisation of the disabled. He also referred to the common people as "the rabble" and liberalism as "reduction to the herd animal." Whilst he had a dislike of the state in general, he made it clear that only certain individuals should break away from it in Thus Spake Zarathustra.

It is, however, hard to classify Nietzsche's politics, as he did not see this as his main concern. He seems to have very little interest in the economy. There are also some liberal strands to his beliefs, such as his distrust of strong punishment for criminals and even a criticism of the death penalty can be found in his early work.

Themes and trends in Nietzsche's work

Nietzsche is important as a precursor of 20th century existentialism and an inspiration for post-structuralism and an influence on postmodernism. However, dry academic summaries of his thought cannot capture the liveliness of his writing, and his extraordinary sense of humor, as in the famous exchange: "God is dead" - Nietzsche; "Nietzsche is dead" - God, and the riposte, "Some are born posthumously!" - Nietzsche. In many respects his writings today appear "romantic" relative to modern sociobiological and medical anthropological theory in the same sense that the Wright Brothers' flying machines appear quaint relative to modern high performance jets.

Nietzsche's works helped to reinforce not only agnostic trends that followed Enlightenment thinkers, and the biological worldview gaining currency from the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin (which also later found expression in the "medical" and "instinctive" interpretations of human behavior by Sigmund Freud), but also the "romantic nationalist" political movements in the late 19th century when various peoples of Europe began to celebrate archeological finds and literature related to pagan ancestors, such as the uncovered Viking burial mounds in Scandinavia, Wagnerian interpretations of Norse mythology stemming from the Eddas of Iceland, Italian nationalist celebrations of the glories of a unified, pre-Christian Roman peninsula, French examination of Celtic Gaul of the pre-Roman era, and Irish nationalist interest in revitalizing Gaelic.

Apart from "noble savage" and "religious deprogramming" themes, in his brazen work The Anti-Christ Nietzsche wrestled with a major tragic issue that remains very much with us today. The politics of urbanized society may tend to reverse the evolutionary processes that bred for various strengths and nobility in primitive man. Ugly, physically weak, and inadequate men who would never make it in a frontier environment nevertheless through low cunning and mafia-like behavior might through financial manipulation acquire control of society. In The Anti-Christ Nietzsche said that while it was necessary for Jews at points in their history to affect "slave morality" as an oppressed minority as a means to get their oppressors off their backs by deceiving them while hiding their own strengths, the deception practiced by Saul of Tarsus in spreading Christianity went too far in its social destructiveness. Hence a paradox: a person who practices "slave morality" shows true inferiority if he really believes in it, but one can show strength and superiority if one uses it as sheep's clothing to disguise the stalking wolf. (As Sun Tzu put it: "All war is based on deception.")

Some people have suggested that Dostoevsky may have specifically created the plot of his Crime and Punishment as a Christian rebuttal to Nietzsche. This cannot be correct, however, as Dostoevsky finished Crime and Punishment well before Nietzsche published any of his works.

Nietzsche's Style

Nietzsche is unique among philosophers in his prose style, particularly in Zarathustra. Perhaps not surprisingly for a pastor's son, he frequently employs an idiom modelled on Luther's bible. Equally important are punning and paradox in his rhetoric. All this means that nuances and shades of meaning are all too easily lost in translation into English. A case in point is the thorny issue of the translation of Übermensch and its unfortunate association with superman and the Nazis.


List of Works

External links


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