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Friedrich Nietzsche

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Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher whose work was critical of the concepts of morality, religion, and the contemporary culture of Europe in the nineteenth century. His style is radical and, like Søren Kierkegaard, his work is often considered foundational for Existentialism and influential on later philosophical movements including postmodernism and the general trend of Continental philosophy since.

Nietzsche's father, Carl Ludwig Nietzsche (1813-1849), a teacher and Lutheran pastor, died five years after Friedrich's birth, and his brother Ludwig Joseph died at age two in 1850. Nietzsche grew up with his mother, Franziska Oehler, and his sister Elisabeth, who would later care for Nietzsche during his final years of insanity, and posthumously edit and publish his work. He excelled academically, studying at Schulpforta, and then studying theology and classical philology at Bonn. He promptly gave up theology having lost his faith, and studied philology. In 1869, Nietzsche became a professor at the University of Basel.

Nietzsche's thought

Unlike Hegel, Nietzsche's thought is unsystematic and sometimes quite difficult to understand. Nietzsche's impressive literary style - inspired, perhaps, by his reading of Arthur Schopenhaeur's The World as Will and Representation - serves as much to reveal aspects of his thought as to cover them up. At points, for instance, the reader is treated to quite clear philosophical discussion of topics like morality and ethics, and at other points, we have coded aphorisms and even narrative epic fiction - in the case of Thus Spake Zarathustra, which parodies the style of the Bible.

There are some common elements or threads to this though.

Truth and Lying

There are some strands of Nietzsche's writing which coalesce into a broad method which some have described as perspectivism[1]. This is usually based on an essay entitled Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense[2], but his perspectivism appears elsewhere:

The falseness of a judgement is to us not necessarily an objection to a judgement... The question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-breeding[3]

Morality, religion and The Will to Power

Nietzsche is critical of the concept of morality as a universal or God-given ideal, describing how it is in fact caused by a will to power - that is, it is based on human desires and power rather than on moral ideals. His method here is genealogical - by describing possible scenarios in which morality could have came to be. The genealogical critique would later be taken up by Michel Foucault.

Nietzsche's story of morality is based around a distinction between master and slave morality. Master morality is that which exalts human strength and will, while slave morality is based on human weakness and wretchedness. The archetype of master morality that Nietzsche describes is that of ancient Greek society, while Jewish and later Christian morality is seen as a slave morality. Christian 'slave' morality is exemplified in the crucifixion of Christ, hence Nietzsche's phrase "Dionysus versus the Crucified".

"God is Dead"

A controversial and frequently misunderstood component of Nietzsche's writings is the statement "God is dead". The statement "God is dead" appears in The Gay Science as the spoken dialogue of a 'madman' who enters the market square proclaiming God's death, and that those in the market have killed God. The straight forward interpretation of this - that God is a mortal creature and has been slayed by someone seems difficult to accept. Most interpret it to mean that the idea of God in Western culture is no longer significant - either it is to be replaced by Nietzsche's philosophical system (perhaps by Zarathustra or by the determination to become an übermensch), in as much as such a system exists, or it is replaced by modernity. This does not necessarily mean that belief in God is dead, but rather the significance of such belief is no longer important in the way it was in previous centuries.

Eternal Recurrence

Another concept that is difficult to understand in Nietzsche is the idea of eternal recurrence. Nietzsche uses it almost as an existential thought experiment. The scenario goes that a demon or a god says to you that your life will repeat for the rest of eternity, over and over again, with the same events happening in the same ways in every iteration. Would such an afterlife be acceptable to a person? Nietzsche thought that a person who had crossed the bridge and become an übermensch would see glory in such eternal recurrence, but that for most it would be unacceptable. It is also possible to see eternal recurrence as a parody of conceptions of heaven and salvation.

The concept of eternal recurrence is best defined by one passage in Nietzsche's The Gay Science which is titled "The heaviest burden":

What if a demon crept after you one day or night in your loneliest solitude and said to you: 'This life, as you live it now and have lived it, you will have to live again and again, times without number; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and all the unspeakably small and great in your life must return to you, and everything in the same series and sequence - and in the same way this spinder and this moonlight among the trees, and in the same way this moment and I myself. The eternal hour-glass of existence will be turned again and again - and you with it, you dust of dust!' - Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who thus spoke? Or have you experienced a tremendous moment in which you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never did I hear anything more divine!' If this thought gained power over you it would, as you are now, transform and perhaps crush you; the qeustion in all and everything: 'do you want this again and again, times without number?' would lie as te heaviest burden upon all your actions. Or how well disposed towards yourself and towards life would you have to become to have no greater desire than for this ultimate eternal sanction and seal?[4]

In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche describes this as amor fati - love of fate - "one wants nothing other than it is, not in the future, not in the past, not in all eternity"[5].

The concept of eternal recurrence has been used in a variety of films, plays and books including K-PAX and Groundhog Day.

Reactions to Nietzsche

Some have seen Nietzsche as a kind of proto-Nazi thinker, mapping his concept of the Übermensch (Superman or Overman) with Hitler's view of the Aryan. This view was quite popular until about the time of Walter Kaufmann's book on Nietzsche, and work by other scholars, noted that Nazi themes were mostly due to the way that Nietzsche's sister Elisabeth framed his work very selectively in The Will To Power.

Partly because of it's alleged Nazism and also because of Nietzsche's atheism, his work has been censured. It was mentioned as a dangerous and immoral terminus that could be reached if evolution was taught in the Scopes trial in the 1920s in Tennessee.

Nietzsche has been seen as a freeing and demystifying author by many, sometimes even as a Christian author (his work is foundational for those in the Death of God theology movement of the 1960s), although the latter is rather harder to accept for many. Recently, some Christian writers have suggested that they would prefer to see atheists more as Nietzscheans than rationalists - it is difficult to see whether they would prefer more them to be more intellectually stimulating or as easier fodder for critique. Others see Nietzsche as not worthy of the title of philosopher, dismissing him as simply teenage 'rebel' fodder.

Nietzsche, along with Søren Kierkegaard has been seen as one of the fathers of existentialism.


  1. Nate Olson, Perspectivism and Truth in Nietzsche’s Philosophy: A Critical Look at the Apparent Contradiction
  2. Available on the Web here
  3. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §4
  4. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §341
  5. Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, §10 in 'Why I Am So Clever'