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Nietzsche: One of the Most Influential Philosophers of the 19th Century
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) is one of the most important and influential philosophers of the 19th century. He touched almost every topic in philosophy, often leaving his mark in the shape of a completely new approach or idea.
He's perhaps most famous for his critique of Christianity and western morals and his ideas of slave-master mentality, eventually leading to him being associated with Nazism.
This article will take a look at some of the pivotal moments in Nietzsche's life that impacted his thinking and provide some interpretations of his philosophical works.
Three Key Turning Points in Nietzsche's Life
Born into a religious family with a Lutheran pastor for a father, Friedrich Nietzsche's childhood was defined by tragedies. He first lost his father, then his younger brother. This melancholy and darkness accompanied him through his life, leaving his thoughts quite depressive and pessimistic.
There were three key turning points in his life, however, that would bring great changed into his life and highly influence his thinking and writings.
1869: Contracting Syphilis
At the age of 24, he received an offer to become professor of classical philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland. He renounced his Prussian citizenship and moved to Basel (which essentially means that he lived without any citizenship through his life).
Despite this, he was conscripted into the Prussian army during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71 and became seriously ill. Scholars claim that he contracted syphilis, which defined the rest of his life—but he lived far too long compared to other syphilis patients of the era. Still, he described his symptoms in detail, often claiming that the illness conquered him 'periodically', leaving him immobilised for days, something typical to syphilis.
He spent the next few years at the university, he became a friend of Richard Wagner and frequently visited him. This is the time when he published The Birth of Tragedy, in which he praised Greek tragedies and described their origins.
1879: A Broken Heart
By 1879, it was evident that Nietzsche could no longer sustain his academic career due to his degrading health. After years of going on longer and longer holidays, Nietzsche finally left the University of Basel.
He spent the winters in northern Italy and the summer in Switzerland and considered the Alps to be the perfect environment for philosophy. His ever-degrading eyesight made him require a typewriter to continue writing.
In 1882, he met Lou Salomé, a Russian-born intellectual. Nietzsche fell in love with her and, together with their friend Paul Rée they were planning to create an intellectual community resembling a monastery (Winterplan).
One can guess the continuation of the story: Lou fell in love with Paul, and they both left Nietzsche, leaving him in a desperate, suicidal sorrow. Beforehand, he broke his friendship with Wagner, storming out from a Wagner opera in disgust.
'Is Wagner a human being at all? Is he not rather a disease? He contaminates everything he touches — he has made music sick.' -Nietzsche
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In his journal, he claims that he felt physical pain from the hypocritical nationalism of the 'German culture' portrayed. Taking huge doses of opium, he unleashed his sorrow on the paper and wrote one of his classics: Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Taking up the role of his fictional Zarathustra, Nietzsche published the continuation, Beyond Good and Evil. His radical views on Christianity distanced him from society, and he tried to seek a university at which he could hold lectures—but he was refused everywhere.
He started working on the masterpiece of his life, the destruction and reconstruction of human morals, with his On the Genealogy of Morality. Despite announcing the next book in the series, The Will to Power, he never finished the latter one, realising that his days were numbered due to his ever-degrading health. He wrote the Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist afterwards, then started working on his autobiography, Ecce Homo.
1889: A Third Mental Breakdown
On the 3rd of January, 1889 Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown in Turin. Insanity overwhelmed his mind, and all the works that follow from the remaining of his life are commonly referred to as the 'Madness Letters'—incoherent messages often signed as 'Dionysos' or 'The crucified one'.
Some of these letters have been published or displayed publicly.
His sister compiled his unpublished drafts in The Will to Power. But since she altered much of the content, it is not considered to be a work of Nietzsche. Due to Elisabeth's (Nietzsche's sister) involvement in fascism, this book served as the connection between Nazism and Nietzsche.
Indeed, Elisabeth was heavily involved with Nazism and the idea of Nueva Germania—an Aryan settlement in the new world is tied to her name. Hitler provided financial support for the Nietzsche archives and, in return, Elisabeth allowed the Führer to use his name to promote Nazism.
This is quite ironic, considering the fact that Nietzsche hated nationalism and was eventually disgusted by Wagner's 'Germanism'. Nevertheless, both of them became figures associated with Nazism, with SS soldiers listening to Wagner's operas and reading Nietzsche (some of Wagner's most important compositions were lost during WWII because Hitler kept them in the Führerbunker).
Interpretations of Nietzsche's Philosophy
This is the point where this article will become completely subjective. Friedrich Nietzsche's prophetic writing style allows many interpretations, and there have been numerous debates about certain aspects of his philosophy, especially in regards to his critique on morals and his idea of the 'Übermensch'.
I am going to provide you with one understanding—one picture—which is mine. If you are interested, I beg you to read his works and find your own interpretation of his words. He truly is one of the best philosophers, although it can be quite hard to understand him.
Death of God
'God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.' - Nietzsche, The Gay Science
When the Madman utters these words, he does not mean that a literal god literally died. The sentence itself presents a problem: most of the western world's moral values are based on Christianity, which is based on the alleged words of the Christian God. If this god is capable of dying, however, then these morals are not divine and they have no special value that raises them above other values.
He argues that the 'death of God' is necessary to wipe out the tyranny of 'absolute morals', to provide the clean state of 'nihilism'. He choose these words to represent the clinging of people to these absolutes—they fear what their life would become with the death of God as much as they fear nihilism.
The Will to Power
Nietzsche claimed that it was 'the will to power' that served as a base for human behaviour. He argued that it wasn't 'conservation' that drove humanity (a popular belief at his time due to Darwinism), because people no longer live in a constant state of emergency or struggle.
Nietzsche, reflecting on his own life, concluded that the utilitarian lifestyle of seeking happiness is nothing but another English trope. He concluded that happiness is not the goal, but the result of the goal: happiness comes from self-fulfillment. Sigmund Freud based his 'will to pleasure' idea on this principle, further developing it.
According to Nietzsche, after humanity reached the state of nihilism through the death of God, a new system of morals should be created, based on 'the will to power' instead of Christianity or the Bible.
Eternal Recurrence and the Three Metamorphoses
Nietzsche believed in a cyclic, infinitely looped universe. 'All configurations that have previously existed on this earth must yet meet . . .' We'll get back to this later.
He coined three transformations, representing the soul's answers to the death of God in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He claimed that humans evolve as much in soul as in form. The three stages of the soul are:
The camel carries any burden bestowed upon by its master faithfully, much like a factory worker. He carries all the obligations and guilt of the world, and 'lives on a diet of dogmas'. As soon as he questions the 'truth' he had been believing in, he becomes a lion.
The lion is a 'noble warrior', he kills for his freedom. The lion stands up against the dragon to slay him and be reborn. (The dragon is called 'Thous shalt', meaning it does not necessarily represent a deity [as in the commandments beginning with these words], but any obligation or any oppression like state, education, religion, family, etc.)
After the dragon falls, the lion is left to create, but is unable. There is no guiding hand. The lion destroys, but does not create, and this is—according to Nietzsche—the greatest burden, greater than what the camel carries. He must be reborn.
The transformation is complete, and the child is born. He is the new beginning, and he is the one creating the new ideals, the new values. These should never become sacred or absolute values, however, there should always come a camel to question them, a lion to destroy them and another child to create alternatives. This is where the eternal return meets nihilism and the death of God.
A lot of philosophers (and Wikipedia) translate 'Übermensch' to something as 'Superhuman' or 'Superman', but I think the term 'Better-human' is . . . well, better. 'Mensch' does not mean 'man' (Mann), and 'über' can be interpreted in many ways.
Nietzsche thought that the largest issue with Christianity is the fact that it's based on 'otherworldyness'. After the death of God, nihilism takes the place of Christian values, providing the perfect foundation for a new system of morals.
These new morals should be laid down by this-worldly individuals, those who create morals based on creativity, the love of this world and life, not otherworldly promises and dissatisfaction. The creator of these new values is the 'Übermensch'. Because the new values are based on this-worldly experiences, idealism and asceticism is avoided.
The 'Übermensch' is in no way related to genetics. It instead represents moral supremacy—see its counterpart: the 'Last man' later. He is an individual, above the morally inferior herd.
The De-Santification of Christianity
You may already be able to see my conclusion here. The 'Übermensch' is similar to the 'child', he is the one creating the new values. But let us go back and take a look at the eternal return.
There have been infinite children, and there will be infinite children. The 'Übermensch' has been around before, and if we look at Christianity with skepticism, it is humans that crafted the religion and its tenets, mainly the patristic philosophers. They were indeed morally superior intellectuals of their own time, but they made a mistake.
The Christian values became sacred, they became absolute values to be never questioned. Nietzsche's Zarathustra is the one standing up against its tyranny, he is the one going through the three transformations. In his early life, he bears the burden, then becomes the lion and tears the values apart—but there is a slight problem.
Nietzsche did not live to write his magnum opus because he fell insane after writing The Antichrist, the book that essentially destroyed the values. He fell in front of the dragon, and was never reborn to be the child.
The Last Man
The 'Last man' (once again 'Letzte Mensch' means 'Last human', but the translation has grown to be too widespread—it's an error) is described to be the opposite of the 'Übermensch' in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Nietzsche thought that the 'Last man' was the ideal individual of western society. The 'Last man' does not have 'the will to power' and therefore lives without ambitions and taking risks. They don't leave their comfort zones, and they are pacifists.
There is a superficial harmony: everyone is literally equal. There is no creativity, no individual flourishing. The 'Last man' eats, drinks and sleeps only. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the 'Last man' is one outcome of nihilism after the death of God. In some sense, the 'Last man' resembles the average citizen in both George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.
Nietzsche disliked modern culture and believed that it suppresses individual fulfillment by promoting mediocrity. He was really pessimistic about the direction society headed to at the end of the 19th century.
The death of God would mean the loss of everything universal and the objective truth. Nietzsche argued that knowledge is conditional and relative to various perspectives, like philosophy or science.
'There are no facts, only interpretations.' - Nietzsche
Master Morality and Slave Morality
According to Nietzsche, there are two types of morality: slave, with values like kindness, sympathy and humility; and master, with values like nobility, strength and pride. The former one deals with good and evil intentions, while the latter one thinks in good and bad consequences. The master is value creating, while the slave is value re-evaluating.
Nietzsche also argued that these types are inseparable from certain cultures due to language, institutions, codes and traditions.
'Today as always, men fall into two groups: slaves and free men. Whoever does not have two-thirds of his day for himself, is a slave, whatever he may be: a statesman, a businessman, an official, or a scholar.' - Nietzsche
There is a huge misconception of making certain philosophers 'guilty' for certain ideologies, like Marx for the terror committed by the Soviet proletariat dictatorships or Nietzsche for Nazism. Both misconceptions have their roots in misunderstandings, and in Nietzsche's case, in taking things literally.
Despite Nietzsche's description of the Übermensch, and the 'Last man' portrayed, the 'Untermensch', the Nazi ideology understood it as genetic superiority. If only they took the other parts literally too!
But no, they did not 'rediscover the seriousness they possessed as children at play', though they did attempt to reshape the world and create a new ideology out of nihilism. They did not base their new ideals on 'the universal will to power' though, merely on their selfish intentions only.
The most important argument against Nietzsche's alleged 'Nazism' is his opposition to the herd (he opposed socialism and promoted elitism, see the original meaning of 'Übermensch') and his hatred towards nationalism, which led to him opposing Wagner. Despite these, his name was corrupted by history, tainted forever. What a shame.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2015 Medvekoma
Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on November 14, 2015:
Excellent biography of this most influential philosopher of modern times. He turned everything that came before on its head. Great Hub, Medvekoma.