PM5340: Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (15 Oct 1844- 25 Aug 1900) was a German philosopher. His father was a Lutheran pastor. Extremely intelligent and erudite, he was appointed a university professor at the age of only 24. In his later years, he developed a serious mental illness, and was hospitalised for the last ten years of his life. The exact nature of this illness is unclear; at the time it was believed to have been syphilis, although some have since questioned that diagnosis, and proposed alternatives, including various forms of dementia, or a genetic predisposition to strokes. He is buried in the village were he was born and grew up, Röcken, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany.

He is well known for the dictum God is dead. Commonly viewed as an expression of atheism; others understand Nietzsche's actual point to have been that many people claimed to be believers, yet their belief no longer had any relevance in their lives, so God was effectively dead for them.

He has a strong reputation as an atheist; yet some Nietzsche scholars dispute whether "atheism" is a good summary of Nietzsche's work. R. J. Hollingdale suggests that Nietzsche's thought can be divided into three main phases: (1) the Christianity of his childhood, more specifically Lutheran pietism; (2) the atheistic nihilism he adopted in reaction to the Christianity of his childhood, best represented in his earlier works; (3) a reaction against that nihilism, a positive system of thought, which Hollingdale sees best represented by Thus Spake Zarathustra. Hollingdale views the third phase as a return to the substance of the Christian beliefs of his childhood, while avoiding the surface form of Christianity - a sort of "Christianity without Christ" or "crypto-Christianity"; in this Hollingdale locates the origins of many of Nietzsche's more unique views, such as eternal recurrence, the Übermensch, and the Great Noontide. This final stage in Nietzsche's thought can be viewed as a synthesis between the thesis of his Christianity and the antithesis of his atheistic nihilism.[1].

Despite his professed atheism, his work exudes a sort of peculiar religiousity — it is almost as if he is trying as hard as he can to be an atheist, but not quite succeeding. (Algernon Swinburne is another author concerning whom very similar things could be said.)

Nietzsche denied the existence of objective truth or morality. He believed in the existence of a superior individual, the superman or overman (Übermensch), who would invent their own truth and their own morality by which to govern their lives. He dismissed Christian morality as herd morality.

Nietzsche taught the doctrine of eternal recurrence — that all the events of one's life, and more broadly the entire history of the universe, repeat beginninglessly and endlessly, not new and differently each time, but exactly the same every time, in even the most minute detail. However, his main focus was not on trying to demonstrate this view of time to be true, but rather on asking what would be the consequences of believing in it. If someone truly loved their own life — as the Übermensch would — they would be supremely happy for it to recur endlessly, exactly the same every time. Whereas, if someone did not truly love their own life, if they hated or detested it, then such a proposition would be absolutely terrifying.

In his later years, Nietzsche went insane and spent the rest of his life in an insane asylum. Many believe this was due to infection with syphillis, although the precise medical cause of Nietzsche's condition is a matter of controversy. In his later years, Nietzsche was cared for by his sister Elisabeth, who was responsible for publishing many of his as yet unpublished works. Elisabeth was a rabid antisemite, and some accuse her of distorting Nietzsche's work to support her antisemitic ideas. Although many claim Nietzsche's thought inspired Nazism, defenders of Nietzsche point to his opposition to the antisemitism of Richard Wagner, which was partly the cause of his falling out with his once close friend, and see any Nietzschean influence on Nazism as being really due to Elisabeth's distortion of her brother's ideas.


  • The Birth of Tragedy (1872)
  • Human, All Too Human (1878-1880)
  • The Gay Science (1882)
  • Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883z–1885)
  • Beyond Good and Evil (1886)
  • The Genealogy of Morals (1887)
  • Twilight of the Idols (1888)
  • The Antichrist (1888)
  • Ecce Homo (1888)

Chief ideas

  • Apollonianism vs. Dionysianism — Nietzsche saw there as being two basic artistic impulses, and more broadly attitudes to life, represented by the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysius. Apollo represents rationality, seriousness, moderation, heroism and magnanimity. Dionysius represents drunkenness, license, debauchery, chaos and disorder. He saw ancient Greek culture, through to the culture of his own day, as a product of the struggle between these two attitudes. Nietzsche concludes, however, that rather than choosing one over the other, the best approach is to find some balance between them.
  • Morality — Nietzsche criticized traditional morality, especially Christian morality, as a "slave morality", fit only for the herd. He believed it was necessary to cast off the fetters of traditional morals, and create a new system of values. In his view, this was a return to the "master morality" of ancient Greece, before the rise of Christianity — a morality based on strength not meekness
  • God is dead — the meaning of this oft-quoted phrase, is not so much that God does not exist, but rather that people have stopped really believing in him — that God is dead in their hearts, even as he lives on in their lips. Nietzsche saw his task, not primarily to call people to stop believing in God, but to come to the realisation that they had already done so
  • Perspectivism — without God, objective truth is no longer possible — instead, Nietzsche urges each person to believe in their own truth.
  • Nihilism — without God, nothing has any ultimate value or meaning; the only values are those which we create for ourselves
  • Will to power — in Nietzsche's view, the primary driving force behind all human and animal life, is not the will to live, but rather the will to power, the will to gain power over others. He looks for examples to the heroes of Greek legend, unafraid to risk their lives and even die young, in the pursuit of power and glory
  • Übermensch (overman or superman) — Nietzsche's ideal human being, or even a being that surpassed humanity. Nietzsche took the Darwinist idea of apes evolving into humans, and argued that humans must in turn evolve into something beyond human, greater than human. Nietzsche saw the Übermensch as exemplifying the will to power, and a master rather than slave morality; one who is not held to traditional moral standards, but creates new moral standards for themselves and for others to live by, in accordance with their will
  • Eternal recurrence — Nietzsche advocated the idea that time, the universe, and all of history, are endlessly repeating; not new and differently each time, but exactly the same every time. He saw this as a challenge — could we love our own lives enough to say "Yes" to them, not just once, but endlessly repeated, despite all the woe and suffering they entail. He describes this idea as the "heaviest weight", with the ability to crush us — but, he believes, the Übermensch will willingly accept this weight, and will so say "Yes". In this, Nietzsche is proposing a cosmodicy.[2]

Attitude towards religion

In general, Nietzsche is highly critical towards traditional religion, especially Christianity. He has a strong reputation as an atheist, and is frequently quoted by atheists. However, some have argued that the reality is more complicated than that. R. J. Hollingdale, respected translator and biographer of Nietzsche, suggests we can divide Nietzche's attitude towards religion into three periods.[3] Firstly, in his youth, the Christianity of his father (a Lutheran pastor); then, his rejection of that background, and a turn to atheistic nihilism; finally, a realisation of the limitations of that nihilism, and a return in a sense to the worldview of his youth; but, he cannot (maybe on account of pride or other psychological reasons) admit that his nihilism was mistaken. So, he reformulates the Christianity of his youth in atheistic, nihilistic, garb, and this is the source of many of the more peculiar philosophical doctrines of his later works, such as eternal recurrence. Out of nihilism he produced a sort of crypto-Christianity, a sort of "Christianity without Christ". Doctrines such as eternal recurrence are essentially religious, even if he introduces them into an atheistic framework. It is as if, Nietzsche is trying as hard as he can to be an atheist, but never quite succeeds.

Relationship to Nazism

The Nazis lauded Nietzsche's works as inspiration for their own philosophy. And some will openly lay the blame for Nazism at Nietzsche's feet. Others feel that Nietzsche is wrongly accused — the Nazis took certain ideas from Nietzsche's thought which were attractive to them, and transformed them in new ways which Nietzsche would not have agreed with. The Nazis supported Nietzsche's master-slave worldview, but they added to it a racial element foreign to Nietzsche. While the Nazis emphasised racial purity, Nietzsche believed that superior human beings could be bred from the combination of the different races (hybrid vigour). While the Nazis were virulently antisemitic, Nietzsche was openly opposed to antisemitism, and claimed that Jews were a superior race to his own. The Nazis loved Germany, Nietzsche grew to despise it; while the Nazis looked down upon the Poles as an inferior people, destined for extermination or enslavement, Nietzsche in his later life rejected his German heritage and claimed to be of Polish descent (a claim which modern historians believe to be false). Defenders of Nietzsche point to his sister Elisabeth, who cared for him in his last years and came to control his manuscripts, as a source of many of the distortions of Nietzsche which later fed into Nazism. Unlike Friedrich, Elisabeth was a virulent anti-semite and German nationalist; she selectively edited many of his manuscript works, critics charge without really understanding them, to support her own views.

  1. R.J. Hollingdale's introduction to his translation of Thus Spake Zarathustra (the new introduction of 1969; specifically section 5, pp. 27-29 in 2003 edition)
  2. Mark Balto, “Logos As Will And Cosmodicy”, Minerva - An Internet Journal of Philosophy Vol. 10 2006
  3. R.J. Hollingdale's introduction to his translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (the new introduction of 1969; specifically section 5, pp. 27-29 in 2003 edition)