The genius of Friedrich Nietzsche
For today’s topic, I decided to write a bit about the great 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose works and insights I have encountered after reading this excellent book on Postmodernism:
Below I will discuss what I consider to be some of Nietzsche’s greatest insights, and why I think that they’re as relevant as ever today.
As with anyone else, I don’t agree entirely with the philosopher’s views, and it’s often debated “which side” he was on in different issues. Regardless, I think that everyone can find value in some way from his works.
“God is dead”
This is perhaps one of Nietzsche’s most famous lines, and appears in several of his works. This original line was taken from “The gay science”:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
This has been interpreted different ways, but here’s a common (and my) take on it:
Beginning at the Renaissance and continuing during the Enlightenment, religion was seriously being called into question as a result of new scientific studies explaining more and more phenomena. During Nietzsche’s own time, Darwin’s theories on evolution were becoming accepted. This lead to traditionally held religious views being more held under more scrutiny, and more people turning to atheism or in many cases, nihilism. Seeing as how without God, the morality that he gave, and the opportunity to live in paradise for eternity after death, life had no meaning.
The German writer Arthur Schopenhauer spoke about the “unknowability of truth” and how everyone spends their life chasing personal goals only to be dissatisfied in the end. These goals are driven by irrationality, and it makes no difference in the end whether one achieves them or not. If one achieves said goal, they become complacent, bored, and dissatisfied. If one fails, they just face pure disappointment. There is no solution, except that it is better to never have existed. As bleak as those conclusions were, they resonated with Nietzsche. (Nietzsche has often been labeled a nihilist, although he didn’t like being thought of as one.)
This troubled Nietzsche severely, as it made a lot of sense to him. The ongoing advancements in science over the past few centuries would continue, and eventually erode religion into irrelevance. What then would take its place? Something had to be done.
Although he ultimately failed to come up with a system of secular morality, (He wanted to, but was losing his mind by the end of his life and couldn’t carry out the work) he did come up with a mental exercise to test whether or not one is living a fulfilling life. He called it “the principle of eternal return”.
What Nietzsche suggested was that you thought over the days of your life, and asked whether or not you would live them again and again for eternity if you had to. If the answer is “yes”, then you have lived a virtuous life.
This is where the expression “live each day as though it were your last” (Or the other take on it which I prefer: “Live each as though it were your only.”) comes from.
One of the catastrophic end results of “God is dead”.
Following his influence from the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche believed that with this decline in religion, people would look to other “gods” (taking the form of dictators) to look to for guidance. This is why Nietzsche was opposed to socialism, democracy, and other forms of collectivism. The new leaders would gain power over people by promising Heaven on Earth, that would be very appealing now that “God was dead”.
His sister distorted his works after his death, interjecting her own nationalist and anti-Semitic worldviews. The Nazis then used these corrupted versions of his work for their own nefarious purposes.
The entire 20th century proved his and Dostoyevsky’s predictions correct.
I think that this insight is particularly valuable because up into the present day, a large portion of the population hasn’t reconciled this issue.
“Master” vs “slave” morality
This was Nietzsche’s take on different systems of morality, and which one should be embraced versus which ones should be condemned.
These names were born out of Antiquity. The “masters” and the “slaves” were those respective classes in Ancient Greece and Rome.
Up until later in Roman history, many of the ruling classes worshiped the pagan gods such as Jupiter, Neptune, Venus, and the like. Nietzsche believed that the ruling classes worshiped these gods because they were idealized forms of human beings. Venus was exceptionally beautiful, Mars had the greatest fighting skills, and Jupiter was all powerful. Nobility, power, strength, ambition, drive, leadership, and honesty were all labeled traits of “master morality” for this very reason.
“Slave morality” started under Judaism when the Jews were held as slaves in Egypt. The Jewish people had to rationalize their own status which they couldn’t escape, and this carried on throughout their culture as they faced oppression by many people over thousands of years.
This tradition was continued by Judaism’s successor. When Christianity started spreading into Europe, it was embraced by the slave class in the Roman Empire. The promise of living in Heaven for eternity as a reward for following Christ gave them hope in a miserable world, where their only purpose was to serve others.
Among Nietzsche’s many criticisms of Christianity, he believed that it promoted the exact opposite of “master morality”. Weakness, poverty, helplessness, and subservience were the traits that were admired here. This was largely due to Christ’s life in poverty, betrayal by those closest to him, and ultimately, his death by crucifixion. This was the sort of life that a Christian was meant to lead.
Nietzsche believed that although Christianity had provided a moral foundation and stability for the West, it was largely the wrong one. It was one born out of an attempt to rationalize weakness. He called it “ressentiment” which was the French word for “resentment”, although it also contains a much stronger bitterness and hatred.
Since the weak have always (and will always) outnumber the strong, it was easy to sell to the masses. It could also be used to control them. (Similar to Karl Marx’s line about “religion is the opium of the masses.”)
This is often translated as “superman” or more accurately, “overman”.
Nietzsche predicted that with the decline in religion, it would take strong, self driven individuals that embrace “master morality”, find their purpose in life, and rise above it all. He acknowledged that this would be a lonely existence, but it would be worth it due to “owning yourself” and rising above the average population.
I think this is perhaps where that expression “it’s lonely at the top” comes from.
He applied this view to popular culture. He was disgusted by the popular culture of his time, as he believed it to promote mindless conformity and mediocrity. If more people strove for a more individualized, better version of themselves, civilization as a whole would be far more dynamic, creative, and inventive.
I hold the exact same view in the present day. Those who talk to me regularly know how much I rant against “basic” people, and “selfie culture”. Sadly, social media and the failing education system have only made the problems worse.
But those are topics for another time.
Nietzsche predicted the emergence of the Postmodernists due to their adherence to “slave morality”.
Although Nietzsche is considered one of the main influences on the Postmodernists, he can also be used against them. The great Dr. Stephen Hicks explained how Postmodernism (and the subsequent marriage of Postmodernism with Neo-Marxist ideologies) were born out of slave morality.
The weak and the poor resent the strong and the wealthy. They experience severe “ressentiment”, and have to rationalize their status rather than looking to better it. Working to better their own status would require looking inward, and confronting insecurities and shortcomings that they may have.
I think a key point here is that unlike the Greek and Roman slaves, one’s life in the modern world is not determined in advance. In a free(er) country, a poor person can work to become wealthy, and a wealthy person can squander their wealth. A depressed person can work to become happy, and less popular person can make more friends, etc.
Dr. Hicks pointed out that this Nietzschian vs. the Marxist worldviews were the main forces dictating the belief systems of the 20th century. One side wanted to side with the powerful and glorify them, the other wanted to rally the oppressed and help them get control.
I think that in both cases though, each side tends to oversimplify things.
The Marxists (and their Postmodern heirs such as Michel Focault, who ironically was also influenced by Nietzsche) reduce situations and institutions to power struggles, and the false dichotomy of “oppressed vs. oppressor”. Not all hierarchies are predicated on power. (And that gets into how one even defines power.)
For example, a social hierarchy is based on charisma, ability to influence people, sometimes looks, on various other factors. If I have more friends than someone else, it’s not because I used force to achieve that. And if someone has more friends than me, my rights weren’t violated either. They simply did a better job of selling themselves, and I should look to their example and learn from it.
Or lets say that an artist or fashion designer works their way up to prominence in their respective industries. They climb higher in those hierarchies, but they didn’t use violence to achieve that. They produced the better work, and received compensation and recognition for it. Of course people will be resentful that theirs won’t get the same, but that doesn’t mean that the more successful artists and designers did anything wrong.
Now obviously, oppression does exist and I don’t want to ignore that either. If one country invades another, citizens of that country being invaded are being oppressed. Slavery was oppression, segregation was oppression, the “War on drugs” is oppression.
I think that both the Marxian and Nietzschian thinkers need to stop framing everything in a false dichotomy and look at institutions, people, and situations on a case by case basis.
“That which does not kill us, only makes us stronger.”
This famous line was originally said by Nietzsche himself. Although not an absolute in every respect, (children who experience trauma or abuse are only worse off) it holds true in many cases.
For example, confronting a fear enables you to overcome it. Same thing with rejection. Struggling financially can make a person better at managing money, and so on.
Dostoyevsky’s near execution caused him to see the world in a completely different light and inspired much of his writing. And Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s time in both the military and the gulag gave him great discipline, inspired him to write his works, which in part helped bring about the death knell of communism.
The prejudices of philosophers
This is the first section in Nietzsche’s “Beyond good and evil”. He talks about how a lot of the great philosophers saw themselves as searching for objective truths, but were really just rationalizing their prejudices and biases into seemingly philosophical worldviews. Nietzsche had hoped to overcome that.
Now in my view, Nietzsche himself had his own prejudices and biases, just like everyone else. He would be considered a misogynist by modern standards, and was scathingly critical of Christianity. Some believe that the latter was rooted in the fact that his father, a Lutheran pastor died a slow and agonizing death from neurological degeneration, and this caused the young Friedrich to question his faith. For what sort of God would allow a great man who spoke his word to die in such a manner?
Regardless, I think that the overall insight is true, and we have to dig deep into self knowledge to asses our own prejudices, fears, anxieties, resentments, biases, and drive. Nietzsche’s writings can be useful guidance in that I think.
A friend often points out to me how modern day psychologists have determined that people are motivated by emotions, and simply use logic to justify it. The only people that are labeled as “unemotional” are psychopaths. This is because the trauma they experienced prevented their brains from being “wired correctly”, so they lack many of those characteristics I laid out in the last paragraph.
I think that this is a good stopping point. I hope that you found value in this piece, and that it compels you to read Nietzsche’s works directly.
Thank you for reading!