Friedrich Nietzsche

by Paul O'Brien

This special "Dead Philosophers Edition" of Plato's Cave is devoted to Friedrich Nietzsche, a misunderstood genius who was ostracized in his own time but who is gaining increasing popularity during this last century after his death. Nietzsche's life was laced with the glory of his powerful, sophisticated ideas, but lined with the tragedy of poor health and a mental illness that claimed the last decade of his life. His theories are commanding and his literary style is uniquely compelling, but oftentimes he seems vague and contradictory. It is for this reason that the reader must understand that this issue is only a cursory investigation of Nietzsche's often complicated and perplexing ideas. There could possibly be some inaccurate interpretations of subject matter presented here, so it is recommended that this be read as any document should be read: always with an open mind, but never without a critical eye.

The Life of Nietzsche

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (pronounced Nee'-che or -chee) was born October 15, 1844 in Rocken, Prussia and died August 25, 1900 in Weimar, southeastern Germany. Nietzsche was born and raised in a very religious environment, the son of a minister and the grandson of two others. Nietzsche's father and younger brother both died within two years of each other when Nietzsche was about five years old, leaving him as the only man in his family at a very early age, perhaps contributing to his early maturity.

In 1858, he attended the Pforta boarding school where he immediately excelled academically. He graduated in 1864 and went on to study Theology and classical philology (a discipline that deals with historical records and texts and the interpretation of their meanings). He quickly disregarded his theological studies and decided to focus on philology at Leipzig. In 1869 Nietzsche was offered the professorship of Classical Philology at the university of Basel in Switzerland where he would start his brief occupation of teaching, finally retiring in 1879.

It is important to note that Nietzsche was of very poor health throughout his entire adult life. He suffered from various ailments caused by his brief experiences in the military, and was also plagued with poor sight. His health and vision problems in turn gave him intense migraine headaches and insomnia. He took drugs to help his pains, but nothing could save him in 1889 when he went mentally insane (possibly from Syphilis, though this has been greatly argued among scholars). He remained incapacitated for eleven years until his death in 1900.

Nietzsche was infamous for being a witty, almost merciless critic. No better example can be that of the antagonism developed between Nietzsche and the famous German composer Richard Wagner, a relationship that began in friendship and ended in great hatred and disagreement over German patriotism. Nietzsche had few friends, was obsessively absorbed in his readings and writings, and was considerably lonely throughout his entire adult life, never marrying. But, as Sigmund Freud claimed, Nietzsche may have had "a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any other man who ever lived or was ever likely to live."

The Philosophy of Nietzsche

Nietzsche most intensely asserted a somewhat Darwinian belief in "the will to power" as the primary motivation of humanity. It essentially states that humankind instinctively and naturally wants not only to survive, but to be powerful. Nietzsche believed that some individuals are just naturally superior to others, by blood or intelligence. These superior people define the ideals of aristocratic nobility that Nietzsche respected so much: power, creativity, self-control, and most importantly strength. But it is discipline and philosophy that helps people attain strength, not the exertion of chaotic force and brute enslavement (though he considered the calculated, intelligent wielding of force as legitimate). He believed that the natural animal desires of humans (the "sex impulse") are very powerful and give the individual great passion and energy, but too easily they can lead one to chaos and wantonness; they must be controlled and disciplined, a belief he called "sublimation." He criticized Judeo-Christianity for distorting sublimation by not teaching people to control their desires, but to destroy them and disregard them altogether.

Those who can become the creators of original ideas and lifestyles, who can "sublimate" their passions, and who can rid their lives of petty desires and frustrations reach the highest level of human excellence; they become "Ubermensch," translated from German as Overmen or Supermen. These Overmen are not bound by the laws that govern the general populous; they do not believe in God and they transcend social norms. The laws of custom and religion are not to be obeyed because they enforce false virtues made by vengeful weaklings. Among the virtues Nietzsche considers false are equality, democracy, and pity, virtues that all protect the weak from the strong. It is up to the Overman to overcome the false virtues and opinions of the masses and actualize his will to power by himself.

As a scholarly philologist, Nietzsche used his knowledge of history to investigate the traditions of human morality. He recognized two general types of morality systems from which all present moralities originate from: master morality and slave morality. Master morality is so named because it was created by the ruling class, the aristocrats, and it essentially considered strength, power, and bravery to be "good." The "good" was created out of an affirmation and pride of their own power and honor. Those they deem as "bad" are those who belong to the lower class, who are characteristically common and mediocre in the eyes of the ruling class. On the flip side of the coin lies slave morality, so named because it is the lower class who created this morality system. This system considered kindness, compassion, and peace as the "good." Instead of being a product of affirmation, however, the distinction between "good" and "evil" is made out of a sense of revenge against the strength of the upper class. Naturally, those deemed as "evil" are those people who belong to the upper class, who are considered characteristically cruel, strange, and dangerous. This moral conflict was tipped toward the slave moralists when Christianity rose to power. Nietzsche, believing this rampant acceptance of slave morality to be very unnatural, asserted that humanity must rise "beyond good and evil" and regain respect for nobility and power if they are to excel. The master morality system clearly lies closer to his notion of the Overman than slave morality.

Nietzsche's famous notion of "God is dead" is also pivotal to his philosophy and to the understanding of his Overman theory. Nietzsche believed that the notion of God confines humanity to submissiveness and mediocrity. Humankind should seek power IN themselves FOR themselves, not through or because of anyone else. A quote that illustrates this is from Thus Spake Zarathustra and states that, "Dead are all gods: now we want the overman to live."

Major Works

Major Criticisms

Criticisms abound considering Nietzsche's controversial philosophy. His writing style, although eloquent, raises opposition for being too poetic and too succinct without enough clarification. Indeed Nietzsche is difficult to understand, and sometimes his works read like patchwork quilts, flowing from subject to subject upon the author's whim. Naturally, faith-filled Christians will also find opposition for Nietzsche's relatively insensitive attack upon Christianity and God.

Despite these criticisms, some opinions about Nietzsche are to be dispelled. For example, some attribute Nietzsche's mental illness as the cause of his strangeness and controversial theories. This is mostly an invalid assumption; clearly Nietzsche suffered from a mental collapse, but up to that point, his writing was cogent and rational enough to be regarded as legitimate and intelligent.

Another historical misunderstanding commonly made is that Nietzsche's philosophy justified and aided the ideals behind Nazism. The Nazis claimed that Nietzsche's Overman theory supported their own master race theory, but clearly Nietzsche would not have approved of their means and methods. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche said that the Overman is, "too pure for the filth of the words: revenge, punishment, reward, retribution" and clearly this does not justify the cruelties inflicted by the Nazis. It is generally accepted in the intellectual community that Hitler's usage of Nietzsche material was distorted and taken out of context.