Friedrich Nietzsche (NEE-chuh, not NEE-chee) was a German philosopher of the 19th century who today is one of the Western tradition’s most controversial figures. He launched blistering attacks on Christian morality and the stultifying way of life that he saw as its logical consequence. He befriended, then turned against, the superstar composer Richard Wagner, whose operas inspired both J.R.R. Tolkien and Adolf Hitler. Both anarchists and ultra-nationalists have found arguments to support their own views in Nietzsche’s writing.
But for a man whose work inspired such fervor and excitement, Nietzsche himself was a sickly, retiring man. He never married, had few friends, and ultimately lost his mind to a deadly brain disease (probably either cancer or neurosyphillis, we don’t know for sure). Some of Nietzsche’s later writings may have been influenced by his illness – his writing style was evocative and full of imagery, far from the dry precision of most philosophers. But that same evocative quality also makes them hard to dissect and interpret, and as a consequence it’s hard to tell whether Nietzsche’s mind was still intact when he came to write his later works.
Regardless of the author’s mental status, the works stand as major achievements of modern Western philosophy. These works have cast a long shadow – for both good and bad reasons.
Ironically, the fiery critic of Christian morality was raised by a Lutheran minister, and for years it was assumed that the young Friedrich would follow his father into the clergy. He went to college planning to study theology and philology (a now-outdated discipline that combined elements of literature, languages, and philosophy). But like a lot of young double-majors, he found he was much more interested in one subject than the other. He ultimately dropped theology and focused exclusively on philology, growing especially enamored of classical literature.
After graduating, Nietzsche began a career as an academic. He published his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy, in 1872, and at the age of 27 was immediately seen as a rising star of philology. The Birth of Tragedy was an investigation into the roots of classical Greek drama and the themes and motivations behind the early plays. Nietzsche argued that Greek tragedy was more than mere entertainment – it unified the people of the growing city-states, giving them a shared emotional experience which could then be transformed into a kind of national pride.
The idea struck home with German scholars and artists. They, too, saw themselves as pioneers trying to fashion a new unified German identity out of centuries of political fragmentation. But Nietzsche wanted to do more than promote German national politics – he wanted to usher in a new era of mankind. He wanted to clear a path for the coming of the Ubermensch (“Superior man”).
The Ubermensch was part supersoldier, part rock star, part dictator, and part Einstein. A natural leader gifted with strength, smarts, charm, and talent, whose natural superiority gave him an inherent right to dominate all other humans (always him, since the Ubermensch according to Nietzsche could not be a woman). Nietzsche wanted to create a society in which the Ubermensch could flourish and achieve his rightful mastery.
It’s easy to imagine how the concept of Ubermensch appealed to some of history’s worst actors. Adolf Hitler, in particular, was attracted to the idea and believed that his Third Reich would be the perfect society for the coming of the Ubermensch. Nietzsche died well before Nazism was born, so we don’t know what he would have thought of Hitler. Most likely he would have been repelled by many of Hitler’s ideas, but would have recognized his own though in some of the Nazi policies (see “Nietzsche and Hitler”, below).
In reading Nietzsche, people often make the mistake of lumping him in with his Nazi fan club – but an even more common mistake is to read Nietzsche as a nihilist. Nihilism is the philosophy of despair, of believing in nothing. Nietzsche’s philosophy is pessimistic in some ways, but it’s not nihilistic. In fact, Nietzsche’s whole point was to find a way out of nihilism. Given that we live in a world full of misery and horror, how can we avoid despair? The answer, Nietzsche thought, was to embrace the world as it really is – to affirm life in all its ugliness. These are profound ideas given that Nietzsche posed them from his deathbed, trying not to give up even as he slipped further and further into a painful and ultimately lethal brain disease.
The Ubermensch Religion, and Ultimate Truth
Why did the Ubermensch need Nietzsche’s help? If they were so naturally superior and destined to rule, why weren’t they already in positions of power all over the world? Nietzsche argued that social institutions were keeping the Ubermensch down, and one institution was more guilty than all the others: religion. Nietzsche saw Christianity, along with all other religious institutions, as a scam put together by the weak: they invented a false God and somehow convinced the strong to fear Him. Once that fear was removed, the Ubermensch would reawaken.
It wasn’t just organized religion that Nietzsche criticized: it was the whole idea of universal morality and ultimate truth. Nietzsche argued that much of what we think of as unquestionable truth is actually just handed down to us by authorities – whether priests, teachers, or kings – who don’t want us to think for ourselves. He thought individual minds construct their own truth. That didn’t mean there was no reality, just that how we understand reality is a matter of perspective.
This is where Nietzsche’s most profound influence on modern philosophy comes in. By thinking seriously about the role of cultural and personal perspective, he opened the door to modern psychology, cognitive science, and anthropology, disciplines that try to understand why people think the way they do.
The Eternal Return
The Doctrine of Eternal Return is the idea that our fates are cyclical: that we are destined to repeat the same life over and over again, making exactly the same choices, suffering the same defeats and achieving the same triumphs. It’s an idea that has sprung up at various times and places – Egypt, India, Central America – but hasn’t found much support among modern Western audiences.
Friedrich Nietzsche was fascinated by this idea, and it appears in various places throughout his writings. But it’s easy to misinterpret: some people claim that Nietzsche believed in the doctrine of eternal return. But that’s not really true. He wasn’t saying that there really was such a thing as eternal return. His argument was more subtle.
What Nietzsche wanted to know was this: how do you feel when you contemplate the idea of eternal return? Are you excited? Would you want to live your whole life again, exactly as you lived it the first time? Or does the thought fill you with dread? For Nietzsche, this was a kind of test for spiritual health. A spiritually healthy person is one who embraces life in its totality, and therefore a spiritually healthy person should feel joy at the thought of an eternal return.
Nietzsche and Hitler
Nietzsche was not a Nazi. He couldn’t have been, since Nazism was born many decades after his death. But the question lingers: what would Nietzsche have thought of Hitler and the Third Reich?
It’s important to point out that Nietzsche wasn’t anti-Semitic, and appears not to have been racist – at least not in the usual sense. He did believe in the fundamental concept of race: that different groups of humans had innate characteristics beyond the obvious differences in appearance. There’s not much evidence for this claim, but it was almost universally believed in Nietzsche’s time. Nietzsche also believed in racial superiority: that some races were inherently better than others. However, he didn’t believe that the White race or the German people were at the top of the ladder. He singled out Arab, Indian, and Jewish civilizations for praise, and argued that Germans needed to intermingle more with Jews and other outsiders in order to strengthen their race. So he was a rare mix – a racist who believed that some other races were superior to his own.
But even if Nietzsche would have rejected the race ideology of the Nazis, there were some Nazi ideas that seem to have been lifted straight from his philosophy. In particular, the worship of strength for its own sake. Nietzsche saw strength not a tool to be used for achieving moral aims, but a moral aim in itself, and a natural source of happiness for strong people. He also believed that political equality was a delusion, and that the strong had a natural right to rule over the weak. The Nazis took this idea to an extreme.
Even here, though, the Nazis distorted what Nietzsche meant by “strength.” For Nietzsche, strength was more about creativity, willpower, and mental toughness – he didn’t advocate the sort of aggression that brought the Nazis to power.
“What does not kill me makes me stronger.” (1888)
Thousands of people have used this line without having any idea where it comes from. It’s actually a quote from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, a book about the importance of independent thought. It’s also an elegantly concise summary of his argument for embracing hardship as a way of affirming the whole of life.
“What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? All that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.” (1888)
This is one of the quotations that inspired Nazism. Nietzsche embraces strength and power as the highest form of moral goodness – an idea that the Nazis took as a central theme of their ideology. For Nietzsche, this strength might have been a creative and benevolent strength, but there’s no denying that he saw strength as valuable in and of itself. Some critics have argued that this is a serious flaw in Nietzsche’s thinking, and that Nazism is the inevitable result when the love of strength becomes unmoored from the guiding values of morality
In Pop Culture
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning… Smells like victory.”
In the Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now, Colonel Kilgore is a modern American rendition of the Ubermensch. He’s tough, gets pleasure from being in combat, and seems unable to sympathize with the fear and anxiety of his own men, let alone that of his enemies. Weakness simply has no place in his personality. What’s most Nietzschean about Kilgore is his passionate embrace of a fate that others would find both physically and morally perilous.
There is, however, another character in Apocalypse Now who embodies another side of Nietzsche’s philosophy. It’s the mad commander Kurtz, who wants America to let go of whatever moral views are holding it back from total victory in Vietnam. “I am beyond their timid, lying morality,” he says in a letter to his son. And later: “It is right to win. It is wrong to lose.” This sounds a lot like the darker side of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Epic Rap Battles of History
“You have to take control of the life you’re given. Call me Uber-mensch ‘cuz I’m so driven”
Nietzsche has the honor of being one of the three philosophers chosen to represent the Western tradition in Epic Rap Battles of History: Eastern vs. Western Philosophers. Alongside Socrates and Voltaire, he battles the Chinese philosophers Lao Zi, Sun Zi, and Confucius. In this one line, you get a quick survey of two key ideas from Nietzsche’s writing: the Ubermensch, and the embrace of life exactly as it is.
In another line, though, the video makes a serious error. Nietzsche refers to himself as “the flyest nihilist,” which is a nice rhyme but a pretty serious misreading of Nietzsche’s work: his whole project was to counter nihilism!