Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche by Mencken

The philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche developed during the 19th Century amid growing criticism of Hegel's philosophic system and had its greatest intellectual and political influence in the 20th Century. Friedrich Nietzsche applied himself to such topics as morality, religion, epistemology, psychology, ontology, and social criticism.

Nietzsche himself left no direct exposition of his philosophy, but rather his general view on the world has become approximated by his works, and therefore remains the subject of intense scholarly dispute and interpretation. Because of Nietzsche's evocative style and often outrageous claims, his philosophy generates strong reactions of passionate love and disgust, and amateurs of all kinds are also heavily involved in the project of interpretation. Nietzsche noted in his autobiographical Ecce Homo that his philosophy developed over time, so interpreters have found it difficult to relate concepts central to one work to those central to another (e.g., the thought of the eternal recurrence features heavily in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but is almost entirely absent from his next book, Beyond Good and Evil). Added to this challenge is the fact that Nietzsche did not seem concerned to develop his thought into a system, even going so far as to disparage the attempt in Beyond Good and Evil.

Common themes in his thought can, however, be identified and discussed. His earliest work emphasized the opposition of Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in art, and the figure of Dionysus continued to play a role in his subsequent thought. Other major currents include the will to power, the claim that God is dead, the distinction between master and slave moralities, and radical perspectivism. Other concepts appear rarely, or are confined to one or two major works, yet are considered centerpieces of Nietzschean philosophy, e.g., the Übermensch and the thought of eternal recurrence. His later works involved a sustained attack on Christianity and Christian morality, and he seemed to be working toward what he called the transvaluation of all values (Umwertung aller Werte). While Nietzsche is often associated in the public mind with fatalism and nihilism, Nietzsche himself viewed his project as the attempt to overcome the pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer.


Nihilism and God is dead

God is dead

Nietzsche saw nihilism as the outcome of repeated frustrations in the search for meaning. He diagnosed nihilism as a latent presence within the very foundations of European culture, and saw it as a necessary and approaching destiny. The religious worldview had already suffered a number of challenges from contrary perspectives grounded in philosophical skepticism, and in modern science's evolutionary and heliocentric theory. Nietzsche saw this intellectual condition as a new challenge to European culture, which had extended itself beyond a sort of point-of-no-return. Nietzsche conceptualizes this with the famous statement "God is dead", which first appeared in his work in section 108 of The Gay Science, again in section 125 with the parable of "The Madman", and even more famously in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The statement, typically placed in quotation marks, accentuated the crisis that Nietzsche argued that Western culture must face and transcend in the wake of the irreparable dissolution of its traditional foundations, moored largely in classical Greek philosophy and Christianity. In aphorisms 55 and 56 of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche talks about the ladder of religious cruelty that suggests how Nihilism emerged from the intellectual conscience of Christianity. Nihilism is sacrificing the meaning "God" brings into our lives, for "matter and motion", physics, "objective truth." In aphorism 56, he explains how to emerge from the utter meaninglessness of life by reaffirming it through the Nietzsche's ideal of Eternal Return.

Nietzsche's criticism of anti-Semitism and nationalism

"The whole problem of the Jews exists only in nation states, for here their energy and higher intelligence, their accumulated capital of spirit and will, gathered from generation to generation through a long schooling in suffering, must become so preponderant as to arouse mass envy and hatred. In almost all contemporary nations, therefore - in direct proportion to the degree to which they act up nationalistially - the literary obscenity of leading the Jews to slaughter as scapegoats of every conceivable public and internal misfortune is spreading."
Friedrich Nietzsche, 1886, [MA 1 475]

Although Nietzsche has famously been represented (most strongly argue misrepresented) as a predecessor to Nazism, he criticized anti-Semitism, pan-Germanism and, to a lesser extent, nationalism. Thus, he broke with his editor in 1886 because of opposition to his anti-Semitic stances, and his rupture with Richard Wagner, expressed in The Case of Wagner and Nietzsche Contra Wagner (both written in 1888), had much to do with Wagner's endorsement of pan-Germanism and anti-Semitism — and also of his rallying to Christianity. In a March 29, 1887 letter to Theodor Fritsch, he mocked anti-Semitics, Fritsch, Eugen Dühring, Wagner, Ebrard, Wahrmund, and the leading advocate of pan-Germanism, Paul de Lagarde, who would become, along with Wagner and Houston Chamberlain, main official influences of Nazism.

Section VIII of Beyond Good and Evil, titled "Peoples and Fatherlands", criticized pan-Germanism and patriotism, advocating instead the unification of Europe (§256, etc.). In Ecce Homo (1888), he criticized the "German nation", its "will to power (to Empire, to Reich)", thus underscoring an easy misinterpretation of the Wille zur Macht, the conception of Germans as a "race", the "anti-Semitic way of writing history", or of writing "history conform to the German Empire," and stigmatized "nationalism, this national neurosis from which Europe is sick", this "small politics".

Nietzsche heavily criticized his sister's husband, Bernhard Förster, and his sister, speaking harshly against the "anti-Semitic canaille.": "I've seen proof, black on white, that Herr Dr. Förster has not yet severed his connection with the anti-Semitic movement...Since then I've had difficulty coming up with any of the tenderness and protectiveness I've so long felt toward you. The separation between us is thereby decided in really the most absurd way. Have you grasped nothing of the reason why I am in the world?...Now it has gone so far that I have to defend myself hand and foot against people who confuse me with these anti-Semitic canaille; after my own sister, my former sister, and after Widemann more recently have given the impetus to this most dire of all confusions. After I read the name Zarathustra in the anti-Semitic Correspondence my forbearance came to an end. I am now in a position of emergency defense against your spouse's Party. These accursed anti-Semite deformities shall not sully my ideal!!". --Draft for a letter to his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche (December 1887)

Georges Bataille was one of the first to denounce the deliberate misinterpretation of Nietzsche carried out by Nazis, among them Alfred Baeumler. He dedicated in January 1937 an issue of Acéphale, titled "Reparations to Nietzsche," to the theme "Nietzsche and the Fascists," he argued against such instrumentalization, by the left or the right, declaring that Nietzsche's aim was to by-pass the short timespan of modern politics, and its inherent lies and simplifications, for a greater historical timespan.

Nietzsche titled aphorism 377 in the fifth book of The Gay Science (published in 1887) "We who are homeless" (litt. "We who are without Fatherlands" — Heimatlosen), in which he criticized pan-Germanism and patriotism and called himself a "good European". In the second part of this aphorism, which according to Bataille contained the most important parts of Nietzsche's political thought, the thinker of the Eternal Return stated:

No, we do not love humanity; but on the other hand we are not nearly "German" enough, in the sense in which the word "German" is constantly being used nowadays, to advocate nationalism and race hatred and to be able to take pleasure in the national scabies of the heart and blood poisoning that now leads the nations of Europe to delimit and barricade themselves against each other as if it were a matter of quarantine. For that we are too open-minded, too malicious, too spoiled, also too well-informed, too "traveled": we far prefer to live on mountains, apart, "untimely," in past or future centuries, merely in order to keep ourselves from experiencing the silent rage to which we know we should be condemned as eyewitnesses of politics that are desolating the German spirit by making it vain and that is, moreover, petty politics:—to keep its own creation from immediately falling apart again, is it not finding it necessary to plant it between two deadly hatreds? must it not desire the eternalization of the European system of a lot of petty states? ... We who are homeless are too manifold and mixed racially and in our descent, being "modern men," and consequently do not feel tempted to participate in the mendacious racial self-admiration and racial indecency that parades in Germany today as a sign of a German way of thinking and that is doubly false and obscene among the people of the "historical sense." We are, in one word—and let this be our word of honor!— good Europeans, the heirs of Europe, the rich, oversupplied, but also overly obligated heirs of thousands of years of European spirit: as such, we have also outgrown Christianity and are averse to it, and precisely because we have grown out of it, because our ancestors were Christians who in their Christianity were uncompromisingly upright; for their faith they willingly sacrificed possessions and position, blood and fatherland. We—do the same. For what? For our unbelief? For every kind of unbelief? No, you know better than that, my friends! The hidden Yes in you is stronger than all Nos and Maybes that afflict you and your age like a disease; and when you have to embark on the sea, you emigrants, you, too, are compelled to this by— a faith! ...

Relation to Søren Kierkegaard

Nietzsche knew little of the 19th-century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Georg Brandes, a Danish philosopher, wrote to Nietzsche in 1888 asking him to study the works of Kierkegaard, to which Nietzsche replied that he would.

Brandes and Nietzsche wrote letters back and forth between 1886-1888. In 1886 Neitzsche sent Brandes copies of Beyond Good and Evil (written in 1885) and later Genealogy of Morals and Human, All Too Human. (p. 314). Brandes sent Nietzsche a copy of Main Currents in 1888. (p. 331-331) Nietzsche wrote in May of 1888 that “Dr. George Brandes is now delivering an important course of lectures at the University of Copenhagen on the German philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche! According to the papers these lectures are having the most brilliant success. The hall is full to overflowing each time; more than three hundred people present.” (p. 227). “They were ready for my theory of “master morality” owing to the thorough general knowledge they possess of the Icelandic sagas which provide very rich material for the theory. I am glad to hear that the Danish philologists approve and accept my derivation of bonus: in itself it seems rather a tall order to trace the concept “good” back to the concept “warrior”. (p. 229)

On January 11, 1888 Brandes wrote the following to Nietzsche, “There is a Northern writer whose works would interest you, if they were but translated, Soren Kierkegaard. He lived from 1813 to 1855, and is in my opinion one of the profoundest psychologists to be met with anywhere. A little book which I have written about him (the translation published at Leipzig in 1879) gives me exhaustive idea of his genius, for the book is a kind of polemical tract written with the purpose of checking his influence. It is, nevertheless, from a psychological point of view, the finest work I have published.” (p. 325) Nietzsche wrote back that he would “tackle Kierkegaard’s psychological problems” (p. 327) and then Brandes asked if he could get a copy of everything Nietzsche had published. (p. 343) so he could spread his “propaganda.” (p. 348, 360-361) [1]

Recent research, however, suggests that Nietzsche was exposed to the works of Kierkegaard through secondary literature. Aside from Brandes, Nietzsche owned and read a copy of Hans Lassen Martensen’s Christliche Ethik (1873) in which Martensen extensively quoted and wrote about Kierkegaard’s individualism in ethics and religion. Nietzsche also read Harald Høffding’s Psychologie in Umrissen auf Grundlage der Erfahrung (ed. 1887) which expounded and critiqued Kierkegaard’s psychology. Thomas Brobjer believes one of the works Nietzsche wrote about Kierkegaard is in Morgenröthe, which was partly written in response to Martensen's work. In one of the passages, Nietzsche wrote: Those moralists, on the other hand, who, following in the footsteps of Socrates, offer the individual a morality of self-control and temperance as a means to his own advantage, as his personal key to happiness, are the exceptions. Brobjer believes Kierkegaard is one of "those moralists".

The first philosophical study comparing Kierkegaard and Nietzsche was published even before Nietzsche's death. More than 60 articles and 15 full-length studies have been published devoted entirely in comparing these two thinkers.

Relation to Schopenhauer

According to Santayana, Nietzsche considered his philosophy to be a correction of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. In his Egotism in German Philosophy[2], Santayana listed Nietzsche’s antithetical reactions to Schopenhauer.

The will to live would become the will to dominate; pessimism founded on reflection would become optimism founded on courage; the suspense of the will in contemplation would yield to a more biological account of intelligence and taste; finally in the place of pity and asceticism (Schopenhauer’ s two principles of morals) Nietzsche would set up the duty of asserting the will at all costs and being cruelly but beautifully strong. These points of difference from Schopenhauer cover the whole philosophy of Nietzsche.

These emendations show how Schopenhauer’s philosophy was not a mere initial stimulus for Nietzsche, but formed the basis for much of Nietzsche’s thinking.

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