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Nietzsche, Friedrich

Nietzsche, Friedrich 1844-1900

NIHILISM, CHRISTIANITY, AND THE ÜBERMENSCH

SCHOLARLY RESPONSES

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Friedrich Nietzsche was born into a family of Lutheran pastors but later repudiated the Christian faith. He entered Bonn University in 1864 as a theology and philology student. His interests turned more to the latter, concentrating on classical and biblical texts. He read David Strausss skeptical Life of Jesus (18351836), discovered Arthur Schopenhaurs atheistic philosophy, and became friends with Richard Wagner, leading to a stormy relationship.

Nietzsche became a professor in classical philology in Basel, Switzerland, in 1869. His university career lasted ten years. He resigned in 1879 for health reasons. His final decade of sanity produced his major works, including his attacks on Christianity, Wagner, traditional morality, and most aspects of the European philosophical tradition and its greatest icons, such as Socrates, Plato, and Immanuel Kant (strangely, he said little about Aristotle).

While he despised Christianity, Nietzsche admired Jesus himself, or at least the historical Jesus who, Nietzsche thought, the church had distorted. As a classical philologist he developed theories about the origin of tragedy (from music) and of ethics in ancient Greece. The latter led him to contrast Apollonian and Dionysian lifestyles, aristocratic and slave moralities, and life-affirming, ascending values versus life-denying, descending values. He shares with Max Weber the credit (or blame perhaps) for switching ethical discourse from virtues to values. Nietzsche went mad in 1889 and died in 1900.

NIHILISM, CHRISTIANITY, AND THE ÜBERMENSCH

Nietzsches philosophy is mostly based on three components: his ontology, his theory of ethics, and his views on intellectual history. His ontology includes his best known saying, God is dead; truth is subjective; the will to power; and eternal recurrence. His ethics involve a preference for aristocratic values over slave morality, the Übermensch, and the claim that we create our values. Contrary to traditional religious and philosophical ideas, we do not discover them or receive them from God or nature, reason, conscience, intuition, or a moral sense. The last point leads to the problem of nihilism. Nihilism (from nihil, Latin for nothing) can be defined as consisting of three main components, atheism, moral skepticism, and the claim that life has no meaning.

From this one might conclude that therefore anything goes. While Nietzsche clearly endorsed all three of the above, he is best classified as an aesthetic, amoral atheist. He did not accept the apparent corollary of nihilism that Fyodor Dostoyevsky (among others) claimed followed from its premises. Instead, it is our task to create or invent our own values and also to create the meaning of life for ourselves, a view repeated in the twentieth century by philosophers as diverse as Karl Popper and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Nietzsches first book proposed an instinctual, amoral, Dionysian creative energy that has been submerged and repressed by an Apollonian force of logic and sobriety (an anticipation perhaps of subsequent work on the left brain versus the right brain). He rejected several ideas he saw as intrinsic to European philosophy, such as self-consciousness, free will, and either/or thinking. However, some may claim that his own thinking often exhibits either/or thinking: life-affirming or life-denying, ascending or descending, Apollonian or Dionysian, slave versus master morality.

Nietzsche certainly went counter to the main trends of both nineteenth-century and twentieth-century political thought, making it rather curious why so many left-wing thinkers were so enthused about him. He challenged the moral idea that exploitation, domination, injury to the weak, destruction, and appropriation are universally evil behaviors.

Nietzsche argued in The Anti-Christ (1895) that noble values in Roman society were corrupted by the rise of Christianity, and he discussed many of its main figures, concluding that Christianity is a religion for the weak and unhealthy whose effect has been to undermine the healthy qualities of more noble peoples. This is in striking contrast to Karl Marxs opposite argument (made by many leftist thinkers) that the real problem is that the church has taken the side of the powers that be, sanctifying their exploitation of the weak and vulnerable members of society.

Nietzsches Übermensch idea can be misunderstood if it is taken in a collectivist rather than a radical individualist sense. It has been translated as both superman and overman. The former is highly misleading and the latter unclear. The best term might seem to be superior man. But this also is misleading. It is neither racist nor nationalist nor class nor genetically based. Nietzsche had ambiguous attitudes toward Charles Darwin and definitely was not a social Darwinist. It is arguable that everyone, or at least anyone, could be an Übermensch, a person who mastered her or his passions and became a creator rather than a creature. It is used basically as a this-worldly alternative to traditional piety.

Übermensch is related to both the weakest points in Nietzsches philosophy, lack of systematic, logical argument, and the strongest point, his brilliant critique of egalitarianism, especially anarchism, socialism, and democracy. But again this must not be confused with later Nazi or other racial, anti-Semitic, nationalist, genetic based theories of group superiority. While it is unfair to see him as a precursor of National Socialism, he can be seen as a precursor of postmodernism and theories of social construction with their subjectivist theories of truth. In addition nothing in his theories seems to rule out racist, fascist, or even Communist ideologies (unlike Kant, utility, that is, all the theories he despises).

SCHOLARLY RESPONSES

Many Nietzsche scholars respond to criticism about the unsystematic and even contradictory nature of his ideas by claiming he was not propounding a system but proposing ideas and hypotheses. This would explain his method of aphorisms, bald assertions, and diatribes without argument and also why his twentieth-century appeal was to such a wide variety of literary and philosophical figures of differing views, from far right to far left. Many would say the same about Plato, who is also contentiously associated with twentieth-century totalitarian ideologies.

However, it can then still be asked, If it is true that we invent our values then we invented the perverse one such as slave morality, human equality, Platonism. Thus, one can ask of preferences for affirming life versus denying life, why is the former preferable? What is the basis for this other than Nietzsches own opinions? Why cannot revenge, resentment, and hatred be noble under some circumstances if people create their own values? This is a problem not unique to Nietzsche because it rests on the fact-value distinction Weber and Nietzsche helped formulate.

There is also a question of the coherence of his critique of Christianity. In his ultimate critique of Christianity, On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), he argues that Christian morals have emerged from revenge, resentment, hatred, impotence, and cowardice. He may well be correct about this and claims that Paul or the church or someone else distorted the original message of Jesus, but perspectivism and subjectivism regarding truth rule out any argument that this is correct. Finally, it is arguable that his compatriot, Gottlob Frege, father of modern mathematical logic, had an effective critique of subjectivist theories of truth.

SEE ALSO Atheism; Christianity; Epistemology; Ethics; Knowledge; Morality; Philosophy; Plato; Popper, Karl; Subjectivity: Overview; Weber, Max

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Allison, David B. 2001. Reading the New Nietzsche. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Babich, Babette E. 1994. Nietzsches Philosophy of Science. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Danto, Arthur C. 1965. Nietzsche as Philosopher: An Original Study. New York: Macmillan.

Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. 1950. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mandel, Siegfried. 1998. Nietzsche and the Jews. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1968. The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. Walter Arnold Kaufmann. New York: Viking. Contains major works such as The Antichrist, Nietzsche contra Wagner, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Twilight of the Idols.

Calvin Hayes

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Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) foresaw a European collapse into nihilism. In works of powerful and beautiful prose and poetry he struggled to head off the catastrophe.

Friedrich Nietzsche was born on Oct. 15, 1844, in Röcken, a village in Saxony where his father served as a Lutheran pastor. The father's death, when the child was 4 years old, was a shattering blow to which Nietzsche often referred in his later writings. This death left Nietzsche in a household of women: his mother, grandmother, several aunts, and a sister, Elizabeth.

After attending local schools in Naumburg, in 1858 Nietzsche won a scholarship to Pforta, one of the best boarding schools in Germany. Here he received a thorough training in the classics and acquired several lifetime friends. At the end of this period of schooling, Nietzsche, who had earlier fully shared the genuine piety of his family, found that he had ceased to accept Christianity—a view that soon hardened into outright atheism. With the highest recommendations of his Pforta teachers, Nietzsche enrolled in the University of Bonn in 1864.

There he pursued classical studies with Friedrich Ritschl, and when the latter, within the year, moved to Leipzig, Nietzsche followed him. Nietzsche attempted to enter into the social life of the students, even joining a dueling fraternity, but he soon discovered that his sense of his own mission in life had isolated him from the pursuits and interests most students shared. At this time, too, Nietzsche apparently contracted syphilis in a Leipzig brothel. The incurable disease gradually undermined his strong constitution. In middle life he suffered almost constantly from migraine and gastric upsets. Loneliness and physical pain were thus the constant background of his life—though Nietzsche later came to interpret them as the necessary conditions for his work.

Nietzsche's early publications in classical philology so impressed his teacher that when a chair of philology opened up at Basel, Ritschl was able to secure it for Nietzsche, then only 24 years old and still without his degree. This the University of Leipzig gave him on the strength of his writings without requiring an examination, and Nietzsche entered upon a teaching career. Important for Nietzsche's intellectual development was his discovery in these Leipzig years of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Lange and the music dramas of Richard Wagner.

When Nietzsche took up residence in Basel, Wagner was nearby at Tribschen, and Nietzsche was soon drawn into his circle. Wagner was then at work on the Ringcycle and on the great festival at Bayreuth that would be inaugurated for its premiere. The project needed publicity and financial support, and many German intellectuals were backing it. Nietzsche entered into the cause with enthusiasm and for several years was a frequent house-guest at Tribschen. Friendship with the charismatic but egocentric Wagner was, however, incompatible with independence of thought, the quality Nietzsche most valued. Before long he began to reassert his own ideas and plans. This led finally to a break, followed by some bitter polemics.

Prior to the break, Wagner had greatly influenced Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), which gave an imaginative account of the forces that led to the rise of Athenian tragedy and to its subsequent decline. Nietzsche's book ends with a rousing advocacy of Wagner's music drama as a revival of Hellenic tragedy. But no sooner had it been published than Nietzsche began to perceive the difference between Wagner's musical genius and the shabby pseudophilosophy of the Wagnerian cult. From then on, though he still felt affection for Wagner's person, Nietzsche attacked ever more vigorously the "decadence" of Wagner's political and philosophical ideas. Two works of his last year of writing deal with the subject: The Wagner Case (1888) and Nietzsche contra Wagner (1888).

Nietzsche's teaching at Basel was interrupted frequently by prolonged bouts of sickness and by several months of service as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War, which further aggravated his illness. In April 1879 his health had deteriorated so much that he was driven to resign. He was given a small pension, and he now began a 10-year period of wandering in search of a tolerable climate. Though racked by increasing pain from the relentless progress of his disease, Nietzsche managed to produce 10 substantial books before his final collapse. They belong to the first rank of German literature and contain a provocative set of philosophical ideas.

His Philosophy

Nietzsche believed that European man was standing at a critical turning point. The advance of scientific enlightenment, in particular the Darwinian theory, had destroyed the old religious and metaphysical underpinnings for the idea of human dignity. "God is dead," declares Nietzsche's spokesman Zarathustra, and man, no longer "the image of God," is a chance product of a nature indifferent to purpose or value. The great danger is that man will find his existence meaningless. Unless a new grounding for values is provided, Nietzsche predicted a rapid decline into nihilism and barbarity.

Nietzsche aimed in all his work to provide a new meaning for human existence in a meaningless world. In the absence of any transcendent sanction, men must create their own values. Nietzsche's writings are either analyses and criticisms of the old system of values or attempts to formulate a new system. For European man, the Judeo-Christian tradition was the source of the old values. Nietzsche attacked it head on in such works as A Genealogy of Morals (1887) and The Antichrist (1888).

In his constructive works Nietzsche sought to find in life itself a force that would serve to set human existence apart. He found it in the hypothesis of the will to power— the urge to dominate and master. All creatures desire this, but only man has achieved sufficient power to turn the force back upon himself. Self-mastery, self-overcoming: these are the qualities that give a unique value to human life. The ideal man, the "superman," will achieve a fierce joy in mastering his own existence, ordering his passions, and giving style to his character. The sublimation of passion and of life's circumstances that the ideal man achieves in his self-overcoming will release in him a flood of creative energy. The lives of such men will be the justification of reality; their preferences will constitute the standard of value.

All morality is thus the result of self-overcoming, but Nietzsche discerned a criterion by which to distinguish the morality of the superman from the "decadent" morality of Christianity. The latter undercuts earthly life in favor of an illusory afterlife, condemns self-assertion as pride, and perverts bodily functions with guilt and fear. Its tendency is toward nihilism and the denial of life. The new morality, on the other hand, will affirm life, encourage self-assertion, and eliminate guilt consciousness. In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883) Nietzsche formulated the ultimate test of the superman's affirmations. Confronted with the hypothesis of eternal recurrence, the notion that the world process is cyclical and eternal, the superman still affirms life. Let it be—again and again—with all its joys and sorrows.

On Jan. 3, 1889, Nietzsche collapsed on a street in Turin, Italy. When he regained consciousness, his sanity was gone. He began to send off wild letters to friends and strangers signed "Dionysus—the Crucified." He was taken to his mother's home and lived on in a twilight condition, sinking ever further from the real world until his death on Aug. 25, 1900.

Further Reading

Nietzsche's last work, Ecce Homo (trans. 1911), is an autobiographical review of his published works; although fascinating and illuminating, it shows signs of megalomania and incipient madness. The best biography of Nietzsche is R. J. Hollingdale, Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy (1965). Of the numerous recent critical works on Nietzsche, the best is Walter Kaufmann's provocative Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist and Antichrist (1950; 3d rev. ed. 1968). □

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Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (frē´drĬkh vĬl´hĕlm nē´chə), 1844–1900, German philosopher, b. Röcken, Prussia. The son of a clergyman, Nietzsche studied Greek and Latin at Bonn and Leipzig and was appointed to the chair of classical philology at Basel in 1869. In his early years he was friendly with the composer Richard Wagner, although later he was to turn against him. Nervous disturbances and eye trouble forced Nietzsche to leave Basel in 1879; he moved from place to place in a vain effort to improve his health until 1889, when he became hopelessly insane. Nietzsche was not a systematic philosopher but rather a moralist who passionately rejected Western bourgeois civilization. He regarded Christian civilization as decadent, and in place of its "slave morality" he looked to the superman, the creator of a new heroic morality that would consciously affirm life and the life values. That superman would represent the highest passion and creativity and would live at a level of experience beyond the conventional standards of good and evil. His creative "will to power" would set him off from "the herd" of inferior humanity. Nietzsche's thought had widespread influence but was of particular importance in Germany. Apologists for Nazism seized on much of his writing as a philosophical justification for their doctrines, but most scholars regard this as a perversion of Nietzsche's thought. Among his most famous works are The Birth of Tragedy (1872, tr. 1910); Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883–91, tr. 1909, 1930), and Beyond Good and Evil (1886, tr. 1907).

See his selected letters ed. by C. Middleton (1969); biographies by C. K. Brinton (1941, repr. 1965), H. A. Reyburn (1948, repr. 1973), I. Frenzel (1967), R. Hayman (1980, repr. 1999), L. Chamberlain (1996), C. Cate (2005), and J. Young (2010); studies by H. L. Mencken (1913, repr. 1993), R. Pfefler (1972), R. C. Solomon, ed. (1973), W. A. Kaufmann (4th ed. 1974), J. T. Wilcox (1974), J. P. A. Stern (1979), R. Schacht (1983), G. Clive (1984), R. J. Hollingdale (1985), A. Nehamas (1985), J. Köhler (tr. 1998), R. C. Solomon and K. M. Higgins (2000), R. B. Pippin (2010), K. Michalski (tr. 2011), and J. Ratner-Rosenhagen (2011).

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Nietzsche, Friedrich

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900) A German philosopher, one of the great (if not the greatest of) modern iconoclasts, Nietzsche has been read as the precursor of such varied phenomena as Nazism and post-modernism. Essentially, he appears to have been outraged by the lack of reflexivity (see ETHNOMETHODOLOGY) among philosophers and scientists who failed to apply to their own thoughts the rigorous questioning they applied to those of others, a reaction which led him to dispute the supposed rationalism, scientism, and humanism of modern Western societies. Against this, he upheld the ideals of individualism, self-reliance, competition, and élitism. The three terms that summarize both the reasons for the continuing controversy over his thought, and the results of his own self-questioning, are ‘nihilism’, ‘will to power’, and ‘superman’. Among those said to have been influenced by his works are Max Weber and Michel Foucault. Most of his books are available in good modern translations. Amongst the best-known are The Gay Science (1882), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–92), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), and Ecce Homo (1908).

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Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm (1844–1900). Philosopher and literary figure who, although German, preferred to be called a ‘European’. He indicted Christianity as ‘the one great curse, the one intrinsic depravity, the one immortal blemish upon humankind’. He attacked on several fronts: (i) like all religions, it is a narcotic to protect people from fear of unknown forces; (ii) theistic explanation has been made unnecessary by the rise of science, and theistic belief has become ‘unbelievable’; (iii) Christian values are anti-human and hostile to life, being fit only for slaves or the weak and inadequate. I will say to Death, “Right on! The same again!”’ His major works are The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Human, All Too Human (1878), and Beyond Good and Evil (1886).

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Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm (1844–1900) German philosopher who rejected Christianity and the prevailing morality of his time and emphasized people's freedom to create their own values. He studied classical philology and taught Greek. In 1879 he abandoned philology for philosophy and worked out his view of the freedom of the individual over the next decade. In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883–91), Nietzsche presented his notion of the Übermensch (‘Superman’), the idealized man, strong, positive, and able to impose his wishes upon the weak and worthless. Other works include Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). In 1889 Nietzsche was declared insane.

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Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm (b Röcken, 1844; d Weimar, 1900). Ger. philosopher, poet, and amateur composer. Prof. of classical philology, Basle Univ. 1869–79. Distinguished between ‘Romantic’ and ‘Dionysian’ in music. Friend and ardent disciple of Wagner from 1868 but turned against him and denounced his influence in 3 pamphlets, the last and most effective of them being Der Fall Wagner (1888). Instead, championed Bizet. Wrote songs, pf. pieces, and choral mus. His epic prose-poem Also sprach Zarathustra (1883–5) inspired mus. from R. Strauss, Mahler, and Delius.

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