“I am not a man, I am dynamite.”
No philosopher has ever been so “right” as Nietzsche. His insights into western civilisation and what it is to be human in the modern world are so on the money, they seem like God-given prophesies.
Nietzsche had an extraordinary insight into human belief systems. He called out the beliefs that held the Victorian world together: official religion, nationalist politics, and faith in science and reason. He was dynamite because he blew those beliefs to smithereens.
What made Nietzsche such a great critic and forecaster for our entire culture? The 2015 book, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner, examines how some people can be so consistently right about the future, while supposed experts get it so wrong.
Having studied the phenomenon at length, the authors concluded that “superforecasters” are not just lucky. They share traits that enable them to bypass the cognitive biases that cloud the judgement of most people.
We’re all invested in the future and investors too often let emotion guide them. Nietzsche was the ultimate superforecaster because he detached himself from others’ investment in the future.
But how? There’s no such thing as in-born genius. Nietzsche simply had a different vision from most people. The difference is that he articulated it exquisitely in his writings.
There are four traits that enabled Nietzsche to blow our precious beliefs apart and see a clear vision of the future.
1. Questioning widely held beliefs
“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.”
This is what makes you a philosopher. Bertrand Russell recalled being taught basic mathematics as a child. Two plus two equals four, he was told. He asked: why? Why does two plus two equal four? It just does, he was told. But he didn’t stop asking and went on to write Principia Mathematica with Alfred North Whitehead, the textbook on the fundamentals of mathematics.
Nietzsche questioned everything he was taught, and then everything everybody seemed to take for granted. His father was a priest, but young Friedrich became the man who declared “God is dead. We have killed him.” The philosopher examined the nature of belief itself. He wrote,
“There are two different types of people in the world, those who want to know, and those who want to believe.”
He loathed mob-thinking. He saw German nationalism — pervasive among intelligent people in his time — to be stupid, the same with anti-Semitism — the two things that would scar twentieth-century Europe.
Behind every belief is a goal. Nietzsche was sceptical of widely held beliefs because he mistrusted their goals.
“He who cannot obey himself will be commanded.”
Self-sufficiency came to Nietzsche in many ways. His idea of self-overcoming, of creating your best self from the chaos within you requires an enormous amount of discipline. To be a Nietzschean is to walk against the herd and out alone in the wilderness. Calling out other people’s bad faith will entail being branded as eccentric or even dangerous (Socrates was executed for questioning beliefs in ancient Athens).
Nietzsche was also lonely. The love of his life, Lou Salome, abandoned him. He became estranged from his family and friends through his convictions. Loneliness can crush many people, Nietzsche confronted loneliness through his choices.
He obeyed himself. His aversion to “the mob” gave him the insight to see the world how it really is. The inconvenient truths that many of us fear so much gave him inspiration to envisage a different world.
3. Everything changes
“Our destiny exercises its influence over us even when, as yet, we have not learned its nature: it is our future that lays down the law to our to-day.”
Every civilisation believes it has the last word until it doesn’t. Western civilisation has shown the same arrogance that many dead civilisations have displayed.
Nietzsche had a deep-seated affection for Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher whose work survives only in fragments. Heraclitus believed that the only thing we can be certain of is change. “You never step in the same river twice,” is a Heraclitus phrase that can be applied to the wider culture as well as our individual lives.
We are poor predictors of the future because we are so invested in things remaining as they are. Change is frightening. This is especially true when we benefit from the way things are.
Nietzsche lived at a time when profound change was underway but was yet to manifest itself. Europe and America were industrialising rapidly, cities grew, technology boomed, scientific discoveries were undermining old ways of thinking.
Nietzsche was among a number of thinkers changing the world at the time along with Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and, of course, Karl Marx. In the nineteenth century, the world was a powder keg. Nietzsche knew it was going to blow.
The twentieth century saw wholesale changes: two world wars, the rise of Fascism, the fall of the European empires, Marxist revolutions in Russia and China. It has been the bloodiest century in the history of mankind. Millions died in wars and revolutions. Millions were exterminated simply for who they were.
“I am a bringer of good tidings such as there has never been… only after me is it possible to hope again.”
You’d think that questioning everything, being a loner and knowing that everything changes would make you a pessimist, but Nietzsche was the opposite.
He ruthlessly called out everything that he believed to be flawed and corrupt in western civilisation’s pillars of progress: religion, science, nation and politics, yet always warned against the nihilism that might come with the vacuum of belief. It is nihilism that made people believe in other mob-mentality goals like fascism and communism.
Instead, Nietzsche looked inwards for meaning, and he urges us to find transcendence in ourselves. He preached for the coming of the “overman” (“Ubermensch”) the higher human that can transcend the human. Optimism and self-belief made him a superforecaster, since pessimism and nihilism cause us to retreat into the comfortable beliefs of the mob.
The overman is the self-overcomer, the self-actualiser that lives beyond mere beliefs and embraces conviction to create their own meaning for life. “It takes chaos to give birth to a dancing star,” he wrote, “and you have chaos within you yet.”
What does this mean for us? A lot. In the same pages as his “dynamite” quip, Nietzsche wrote of a future even more extraordinary than what humankind witnessed in the twentieth century.
“When truth steps into battle with the lie of millenia we shall have convusions, an earthquake spasm, a transposition of valley and mountain such as never has been dreamed of. The concept politics has then become completely absorbed into a war of spirits, all the power-structures of the old society have been blown into the air — they one and all reposed on the lie: there will be Wars such as there has never yet been on earth. Only after me will there be grand politics on Earth.”
The world wars, fascism, the Holocaust, and communist revolutions have come to pass, but is there more to come?
We are dozing on an unexploded bomb. Technologies such as gene editing, robotics and artificial intelligence will pose dilemmas to us that are unprecedented in all history. We will be challenged to define what being human means, what life is, what “rights” are. We’ll need to redefine happiness, democracy and even freedom.
Wildlife and resources are evaporating. What was once called the “Third World” is quickly rising to prosperity and power. Nations humiliated by colonialism will be humiliating their colonisers. The wealth gap between rich and poor is widening faster. There may be revolutions.
Will there be even more suffering? That is up to our capacity to handle inevitable change. That is up to us.
Thank you for reading.
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