1. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)
Nietzsche worship in this day and age is somewhat hackneyed. Everyone quotes him, everyone thinks they know him, everyone thinks they see themselves in his writing. Many of them violate the first rule of being a Nietzsche disciple: there are no Nietzsche disciples. Another paean to Nietzsche runs the risk of adding to this noise. By asserting that Nietzsche is the hub of the wheel of my thought process, I run the risk of discipleship myself. These are chances I am willing to take.
His life was short, even by the standards of his age. It was even shorter when we consider the fact he spent his last decade in a state of vegetative madness. There are those who ascribe his mental breakdown to the volatility of his ideas, but it was most likely the syphilis he had contracted as a youngster serving in the Franco-Prussian War. He was an incredibly prolific writer in the 40 or so lucid years he had, writing a string of books that would eventually turn western philosophy on its head.
Yet very few people took notice of his genius during his lifetime. He would have probably went unnoticed altogether if not for the efforts of his sister. Nietzsche had a rocky relationship with his sister, taking issue with the fact that she married a man that embodied everything he hated about German society at the time: a German nationalist and raving anti-Semite. Once Nietzsche was dead, his sister ransacked all of his unfinished writings, added in sections of her own and packaged it as an apology for German imperialism and racial cruelty entitled The Will to Power, published in her brother’s name. Her self-serving act forever put a black eye on Nietzsche’s reputation.
The Will to Power was such a hit in German nationalist circles that Adolf Hitler went on to proclaim Nietzsche a national hero. The recognition that eluded Nietzsche in his lifetime was finally found with the very people that most disgusted him. Throughout the years of the Third Reich and beyond, Nietzsche would be known as the Nazi philosopher. His name would be associated with a justification for cruelty, racism and war. It is an image of Nietzsche that has never been totally shaken. We see this when people celebrate his famous line “whatever does not kill us makes us stronger”, without fully appreciating the rest of what Nietzsche truly stood for.
That would change when a German-Jewish philosopher named Walter Kaufmann started rehabilitating Nietzsche’s reputation. He cut through decades of self-serving Nietzsche interpretation in order to get at the true thinker. For the first time, Nietzsche would have a fair hearing.
Nietzsche’s style lends itself to misinterpretation. His best books are written in aphorism, or individual paragraphs and sections that each deal with a specific topic. Succeeding aphorisms usually relate to each other, the goal being to weave a tapestry of ideas that somehow hang together. Some aphorisms deal with topics head-on, usually with many italics and exclamation points that enable the reader to envision Nietzsche standing there gesticulating wildly . Others are pure metaphor, indirectly making a point about one thing when he is usually talking about another. All of it is great writing. Rarely in the world of philosophy does one encounter someone who unites profound thinking and artistic writing in the manner of Nietzsche.
The way Nietzsche laid out his books is a window into his thought. He needed to use the aphorism style because it allowed him to approach the same topic from different directions. If at times he seemed to contradict himself, it is because he did. Nietzsche did not shy away from contradiction. In fact, contradiction lies at the heart of his thought.
Humans are irrational creatures. Their thoughts and feelings are in constant flux, making contradiction the natural human condition. For millennia, philosophers had tried to pound these contradictions into straight arrows. They erected systems of thought based upon rational reason. The validity of these systems was measured by their internal consistency. For Nietzsche, what these philosophers were doing was running from their own humanity. Their elegant systems were expressions of fear of the uncertainty of human beings. By trying to be inhuman through building these awe-inspiring systems of thought, philosophers had merely betrayed their very human fears. This is part of what Nietzsche meant by the title of one of his first books, Human, All Too Human.
As he said many times, Nietzsche was not a system builder. He was a “ploughshare”, destroying old systems in order to clear the way for something new. What this new thing would be was for future generations to decide. His role was to help point the way. This would be what gave rise to the idea of Nietzsche’s “overman”. Hitler perverted the overman to mean the Aryan superman found in Nazi propaganda. In reality, the overman was the philosopher of tomorrow, irreverent towards the systems of the past, totally in tune with his own humanity and completely unafraid to set his course by his own standards. The overman would complete what Nietzsche referred to as the “revaluation of all values” that had begun during his age.
Too much has been made of the overman by Nietzsche fanatics. Much like the role of communism in the philosophy of Karl Marx, the overman was merely a vague end point of a rich cultural critique. By interpreting and misinterpreting that end point, they ignore the path that leads there.
Europe of the late 1800s was in a state of cultural flux. The institution that had given order to society and thought for thousands of years, Christianity, was done. In its place was a modern world defined by national rivalries, commercial pursuits and industrial production. This change is to what Nietzsche was referring when he said in the Gay Science “God is dead and we have killed him.” Through a new configuration of the western world that celebrated modernity, God had been left behind.
“God is dead” is not a celebration, merely an observation. While it is clear that Nietzsche believed the Judeo-Christian tradition celebrated a “slave morality”, he was not all too happy about the modernity that had replaced it. The west had unchained itself from God and now found itself twirling in an oblivion of nationalism, capitalism, industrialism, democracy and socialism. All of these things were competing with each other to be the new zeitgeist. None of them were able to provide the deep meaning that God had once promised. The west was on the verge of nihilism, hence the need for an overman.
One of the most interesting parts of Nietzsche’s variegated philosophy was his attitude towards science. He fully appreciated the fact that science could provide answers that God was never able to provide. It was one of the driving forces of our modern age, if not the dominant force. However, he believed that the scientist’s claims to objectivity were bloated. To Nietzsche, science required every bit as much faith as religion. Scientists had faith in the truth of objective facts, that these facts can be discerned through empirical research and that the scientific method was the way to conduct this research. Science smacked of all of those other attempts by philosophers throughout history to pound the contradictions of human experience into a straight, logical arrow. Science was another human, all too human attempt to run from our own humanity.
This points the way to Nietzsche’s view on truth. Most philosophers, indeed most people, assumed that there was a universal truth that existed independent of human beings. Not only does this truth exist, but it is knowable by us. For Nietzsche, this was an arrogant claim for people to make. The concept of truth was just that, a concept, and one that had been brought into the world by human beings. If there is such a thing as truth, our perspective would be too small and ant-like to ever see the entire thing. However, it is possible that truth does not exist at all, that the world outside of us (if one exists) is filtered through our human brains and learned cultural handles. Truth is untenable because we can never get past our own biases about what truth is supposed to be. Those biases shape our expectations and, therefore, shape how we see the “truth”.
This is why Nietzsche needed the aphoristic style. If we can never get at truth, then the next best thing would be to look at the world through several different perspectives. What might seem like a bunch of contradictory ideas is really a noble pursuit to understand as much as we can about the world. This is what might be deemed as “relativism”, or the idea that there is no one right way to look at things, just a series of perspectives that all have something different to say.
Nietzsche is the type of thinker that cannot help but enthrall. Whether you end up hating or loving his philosophy (there is no in between), Nietzsche is sure to have an impact on the way you think. For me, Nietzsche teaches to constantly be skeptical not only of those ideas that seem too good to be true, but of my own ideas. Nietzsche helps prevent me from getting too carried away by my own self-righteousness. He warns that the things that I am totally convinced of, including all of my deepest assumptions, can be wrong. Not only might they be wrong, but they might be oppressive because they preclude me from reflecting honestly.
After I had blown through Nieztsche’s works, I felt my mind become a vast ocean. I was less inclined to dogma, more inclined to tolerance and more likely to admit intellectual laziness or dishonesty within myself. Nietzsche taught me to embrace my humanity. As a human, I am naturally inclined to make mistakes. I am naturally inclined to have contradictions. Rather than beat myself up over these things, not to mention beat up others, they all must be embraced. This points the way to one of Nietzsche’s most powerful ideas: amor fati.
Amor fati means “love of fate”. Looking at the past, amor fati teaches us not to “cry over spilled milk”. Whatever is done is done. Rather than tear ourselves apart for the mistakes we have made, we must love them because they have shaped who we are today. Looking at the future, amor fati means accepting all that will befall us. Because we live in a human world of flux and contradiction, we can never know or have control over what will happen to us. We cannot even guarantee that we will make the best possible choices for ourselves when faced with new challenges. All we can do, according to Nietzsche, is be the “yes sayer”. It is an exhortation to embrace life for all of its thorns and warts. It is a humbling idea that helps us push through bad times and appreciate the good.
Part of amor fati and being a yes-sayer is the embracing of death. We cannot fight against death by expecting an afterlife or a supernatural reward. What we can do is ensure that we make the greatest possible impact when we are alive. For Nietzsche, all human life has the same drive. It is not the will to survive. It is the will to power. The will to power is a natural yearning to shape our surroundings. It is the discharge of our human spirit. The only way to cheat death is not through heaven or a fountain of youth, it is in having such a will to power when we are alive that we will be remembered after we are dead. All of the philosophers that had built systems of thought were discharging their will to power. They built a system in their own image in hopes that it would live forever. What they were really doing was carving their image on the face of eternity.
The greatest wills tend to die young. Just as the brightest stars tend to die relatively fast from burning up all of their fuel, the greatest humans tend to devour all of their energy quickly, pushing them into early graves. Nietzsche would not know how prophetic this idea would be for him. Losing his mind while still in his 40s and dying before he reached 60, Nietzsche certainly emitted enough energy to the world around him to warrant being remembered throughout history. Nietzsche’s life and death is a reminder to us to live by our passions and not be afraid to take risks.
There is nobody who can bring this home better than the man himself:
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”