Who was Friedrich Nietzsche?
Why was He Writing?
The New Socrates
Friedrich Nietzsche (Nee'-Cha) was born in 1844 in Germany. It might be helpful to think of him as following in the footsteps of Socrates. Like Socrates, Nietzsche engages in dialogue in order to make us see the flaws in our conventional ways of understanding truth, morality, and the world around us, and challenges what he sees as the great errors of the modern age: the perception that technology and science are limitless, the belief in objective morality, and the ideals of nationalism. And also like Socrates, he gives lots of criticisms but few clear answers! This is partially because both philosophers start from a humble standpoint: Socrates admits that "All he knows is that he knows nothing," and Nietzsche reminds us that we are all animals, animals approaching any problem from a certain biased perspective.
Conflict Breeds Creation
Alas! What are you, after all, my written and painted thoughts!... You have already doffed your novelty, and some of you, I fear, are ready to become truths, so immortal do they look, so pathetically honest, so tedious! And was it ever otherwise? (Beyond Good & Evil, section 296)
Nietzsche is part philosopher, part psychologist, part comparative linguist, and part historian, but above all he is an artist. He does not present his work as the Truth, nor does he want you to throw away your uncritical beliefs and uncritically accept his. Rather he wants to present you with an alternative picture of life, a new perspective, and he wants you to put your beliefs in strife with this new picture. This is why you will often see him using flagrant and hyperbolic language uncharacteristic of other philosophers. He does this to immediately force you, the reader, into a defensive position, where you must think critically in order to defend your beliefs or abandon them. His exaggerated and often cryptic language forces you to think for yourself, rather than blindly follow him.
Wasn't He a Nazi?
Late in his life, Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown, and was transferred to the care of his sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, despite Nietzsche's many falling outs with her. Elizabeth, along with her husband Bernhard Förster, were virulently anti-Semitic. So much so, in fact, that they even eventually founded a Utopian "Aryan" colony in the Paraguayan jungle called Nueva Germania in 1887 (needless to say, it did not last long. Bernhard committed suicide in 2 years and Elizabeth returned to Germany in 6).
Once Nietzsche was placed in their care, they immediately began doctoring his works and publishing them to take advantage of his popularity in order to further their Aryan-supremacist agenda. They added passages of their own writing, removed Nietzsche's passages that were explicitly against anti-Semitism, and otherwise changed passages to align his philosophy with theirs. Elizabeth even falsified letters he wrote later in life. Of the collection of 505 of her brother's letters that Förster-Nietzsche published in 1909, just 60 were the original versions and 32 of them were entirely made up (source).
This tragic misrepresentation of Nietzsche's philosophy has left massive stains on his legacy. Hitler and the Nazi party selectively read Nietzsche's works in order to bolster their regime, and white supremacists today do much the same thing. So read his works carefully, and be weary of media portrayals of Nietzsche.
"It must be taken into the bargain, if various clouds and disturbances - in short, slight attacks of stupidity - pass over the spirit of a people that suffers and WANTS to suffer from national nervous fever and political ambition: for instance, among present-day Germans there is alternately the anti-French folly, the anti-Semitic folly, the anti-Polish folly..." (Beyond Good & Evil, section 251)
“This most anti-cultural sickness and unreason there is, nationalism, this nervose nationale with which Europe is sick, this perpetuation of European particularism, of petty politics…is a dead-end street.” (Ecce Homo)
"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 of a letter from Nietzsche to his sister)
Key Principle What is a Genealogy?
The primary work you will be reading of Nietzsche's is On The Genealogy of Morals. In this work, he gives a "genealogy" of our modern conception of morality, which he believes is dominated by Christianity. So what exactly does a "genealogy" of a concept such as morality look like?
Conventional histories and philosophical texts often trace many disparate facets of modern life back to one single event or fundamental principle, or trace the linear evolution of a concept over time. For example, a historian might look at the crucifixion of Jesus, and trace its many impacts on political, social, and economic life throughout history to this day. Or, a linguist might look at when the word "good" first became used, and trace the meaning of this single word in isolation up to the modern use of the word "good" today.
A genealogy, on the other hand, shows how a single modern concept has its roots far back in the past in many disparate events and ideas, much like a family tree shows how one person today is the product of many disparate ancestors. Rather than giving arguments in premise-conclusion form, a genealogy tells a story of how a concept, such as the Christian moral worldview, came to be. Nietzsche was one of the first philosophers to acknowledge a crucial fact about ideas: they are historically rooted. Ideas like Christian morality, or the Enlightenment, or Social Darwinism, do not develop in isolation from their historical, political, social, and economic context, quite the opposite - they arise largely as a result of this context. The ideas of the Enlightenment - self-determination and individual freedom, emphasis on science over faith, democracy over absolutism, etc - evolved as a result of the Age of Exploration, the invention of the printing press, and the growth of capitalism. In the same way, Nietzsche claims that modern morality evolved from distinct historical trends and psychological phenomena.
Most importantly, a genealogy is descriptive - it describes a narrative arc without saying that this development is right or wrong, good or bad. Nevertheless, if Nietzsche can show you that a concept like your moral worldview does not actually come from where you think it does, and in fact has a rather unflattering history, this might be cause to question why you believe in it... So let's dive in!
Genealogy of Prince William
The most common form of genealogy is a family tree, starting from distant ancestors and moving forward through generations to grandparents, parents, and ultimately to a single person.
Genealogy of Rock and Roll
Genealogies can also be given to concepts. This genealogy, courtesy of the timeless classic movie "School of Rock" traces the changes in Rock & Roll over time, and how these changes influenced each other. Thanks Jack Black!
Can I still be Christian?
Is Nietzsche wrong about human nature, about the fundamentals of reality, about the history of Western thought? If you think he is, then provide an alternative story! Tell us where Christianity really came from, explain history in a different way, give an alternative account of human nature that does not include repressed instincts or the Will to Power.
If you suspect Nietzsche may be onto something, explore this history further! See where history and biology support his claims, and where his speculations were off. Remember that just because Christianity has this history does not necessarily mean it is wrong to follow it, provided that you are honest with yourself about what it is and what it does for you. Finally, live like Jesus lived! Question authority! Live a life of action! Love everyone, and don't be judgemental of others or of yourself.
Does this image inspire guilt, pity, and images of the afterlife, or self-confidence, determination, and vigor in this life?
What about the secular world?
"That which philosophers called "giving a basis to morality,"... has proved merely a learned form of good faith in prevailing morality, a new means of its expression... in its ultimate motive, a sort of denial that it is lawful for this morality to be called in question." (Beyond Good & Evil section 186)
It might seem like Nietzsche was only describing a particular religion's worldview, but in fact he believed all of Western society was infected with the germ of Christianity. The slave morality ultimately won, and democratic nations, philosophers, scientists, and even atheists of his time were all various iterations of the same moral paradigm - a paradigm in which reason and truth are valued above everything else, instincts and passions are suppressed and scorned, and unseen, transcendental, objective morals and supernatural beings are outside of the world yet govern the world. This paradigm is the problem; Christianity is merely the progenitor. Everywhere the paradigm is given new phrasing and justification, but nowhere is the paradigm itself questioned.
"We have found that in all principal moral judgments, Europe has become unanimous, including likewise the countries where European influence prevails, in Europe people evidently know what Socrates thought he did not know, and what the famous serpent of old once promised to teach - they "know" today what is good and evil." (Beyond Good & Evil section 202)
So what should we do?
"Where have we to fix our hopes? In New Philosophers - there is no other alternative: in minds strong and original enough to initiate opposite estimates of value, to transvalue and invert 'eternal valuations'" (Beyond Good & Evil section 203)
So if this whole moral paradigm is wrong because it abstracts from the reality of experience, it causes us to feel guilt and to hate ourselves and our instincts, and it compels us to think we possess objective morals that can be used to judge and exclude others, what alternative way of life does Nietzsche propose?
Well, he certainly does not think the answer is a return to master morality and purely obeying any and all of our instincts. First of all, Nietzsche does not even think this is possible - humans have lived in society too long and are too corrupted by the Christian moral paradigm to go back to living like animals. Second, living like animals is ugly! The slaves' self-reflection, self-consciousness, and self-torture, Nietzsche says, are what made the human animal beautiful and interesting! Without it, there would be no science, no religion, no philosophy, no culture, no art - all things that make human life worth living.
The problem is slave morality created this rich life out of an unhealthy mindset - guilty conscience and ressentiment. So what we should strive for, then, is a rich, self-reflective life created from a more positive mindset that is not laden with all these life-denying and self-hating notions. A mindset that affirms life, that takes its guidance for action not from some external realm of gods and objectivity, but from within the world, within experience, and within the fullness of our instincts. A mindset that is above all a creator of values. Does this mean that we lose "Objective" morality? Well, yes, but Nietzsche would say we never had it to begin with! We were living under an illusory master we created ourselves, and now we have the knowledge, the experience, and the mental fortitude to turn our backs on this master. That is what Nietzsche meant when he declared: