Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (October 15, 1844 - August 25, 1900) was a famous and influential German philosopher.
Nietzsche was born in the small town Röcken bei Lützen not too far from Leipzig, Prussia (now a part of Germany). He was born on the 49th birthday of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia and was thus named after him. His father was a pastor and died when Nietzsche was only four years old leaving him to be raised by his mother and three sisters. He was very pious as a child. A brilliant student, he became professor of classical philology at the University of Basel in 1869, but retired in 1879 due to poor health. From 1880 until his collapse in January 1889, Nietzsche led a wandering, gypsy-like existence as a "stateless" person, writing most of his major works during this period. His fame and influence came later, despite the meddling of his sister. She has been associated with the Nazis in the 1930s, and is responsible for selective quoting and abuse of his philosophy in Nazi ideology.
Nietzsche may have contracted syphilis as a student (some think this was the cause of his madness) and endured periods of illness during his adult life, which forced him to resign from the University of Basel. After the completion of Ecce Homo his health rapidly declined until he collapsed: in Italy, wearing only underwear, he tearfully embraced a horse because it had been beaten by its owner. From that moment on he never recovered. Nietzsche spent the last ten years of his life insane and unaware of the immense success of his works.
The cause of Nietzsche's condition has to be regarded as undetermined, as doctors later in his life said they were not so sure about the initial diagnosis of syphilis, since he lacked typical symptoms. Other possibilities could be a tumor or an endogenous illness, possibly paranoia.
Nietzsche is famous for his rejection of what he calls "slave morality" (which he felt reflected the inverse of the "will to power" and a perversion of useful altruism); his attacks on Christianity (a character in one of his works declared that "God is dead"); his origination of the Übermensch concept (translated as "Overman" or "Superman") in only one of his books; his embrace of a sort of a-rationalism; and something he called "the Will to Power" (Wille zur Macht). Nietzsche was strongly influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer and his concept of "the Will to live". H.L. Mencken's book on Nietzsche described his work as an early effort to reconcile the philosophical implications of Charles Darwin's "survival of the fittest" evolutionary theory with contemporary moral and ethical systems. In many respects his thinking anticipated the "heredity" side of the ongoing debate about which has more influence on human behavior: learning vs. heredity in the modern discipline of psychology.
Nietzsche's thoughts also anticipated the "biological world view" and genetic interpretation of social behavior in the modern discipline of sociobiology (c.f. one can find updated "Nietzsche" in A New Morality From Science: Beyondism by Dr. Raymond Cattell, which draws from concepts elucidated in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis by Harvard professor Dr. Edward Wilson as well as other emergent disciplines such as "medical anthropology." Nietzsche's concept of breeding upwards towards the "higher man" is indirectly addressed in biological interpretations of human history, such as Dr. Elmer Pendell's Why Civilizations Self-Destruct or Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West).
The "Will to Power"
One of Nietzsche's central concepts is "the Will to Power" (Wille zur Macht), an abstract process of expansion and imposition. He hypothesizes that it could be taken as the fundamental causal power in the world, something to which all other causal powers can be reduced. That is, Nietzsche in part hoped Will to Power could be a "theory of everything", providing the ultimate foundations for explanations of everything from whole societies, to individual organisms, to lumps of matter. In contrast to the "theories of everything" attempted in physics, Nietzsche's was teleological in nature.
Nietzsche perhaps developed the Will to Power concept furthest with regards to living organisms, and it is there where the concept is perhaps easiest to understand. There, the Will to Power is taken as an animal's most fundamental instinct or drive. Will to Power is something like the desire to exert one's will, although it may well be unconscious. Arthur C. Danto says that "aggression" is at least sometimes an approximate synonym. In any case, since the Will to Power is fundamental, any other drives are to be reduced to it; the "will to survive" that Biologists (at least in Nietzsche's day) thought to be fundamental, for example, was really to be explained as a manifestation of the Will to Power.
Not just instincts but also higher level behaviors (even in humans) were to be reduced to the Will to Power. This includes both such apparently harmful acts as physical violence, lying, and domination, on one hand, and such apparently non-harmful acts as gift-giving, love, and praise on the other. In Beyond Good and Evil, he claims that philosophers' "will to truth" should be nothing more than a manifestation of their Will to Power; when it is not, the will to truth is nothing more than nihilism.
As indicated above, though, the Will to Power is to explain more than just an individual animal. The Will to Power is also to be the explanation for, e.g., why matter behaves it does, why plants grow, and why social classes behave as they do.
The Will to Power and psychology
The Will to Power is in part a psychological theory. Nonetheless, it has been more or less ignored by psychology as a discipline.
Similar ideas in others' thought
With respect to the Will to Power, Nietzsche was strongly influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer and his concept of "the Will to live". Other ideas similar to Nietzsche's are Crowley's "Law of Thelema" (the Law of Willpower--"Do what thou wilt"), Taoism, which holds that to follow one's own natural wills will bring about a happier existence, and Hegel's theory of history.
Although the idea may seem harsh to some, others see Nietzsche's "will to power" -- or, as he famously put it, the ability to "say yes! to life" -- as life-affirming. Creatures affirm instinct in exerting power and dominance. The suffering born of conflict between competing wills and the efforts to overcome one's environment is not evil, but a part of existence to be embraced in that it signifies the healthy expression of the natural order. Enduring satisfaction and pleasure result from living by instinct and successfully exerting the will to power.
(Note: part of this follows from Nietzsche's somewhat quirky definition of "life".)
Nietzsche's work addresses ethics from several perspectives; in today's terms, we might say his remarks pertain to meta-ethics, normative ethics, and descriptive ethics.
As far as meta-ethics is concerned, Nietzsche can perhaps most usefully be classified as a moral skeptic; that is, he claims that all ethical statements are false, because any kind of correspondence between ethical statements and "moral facts" is illusory. (This is part of a more general claim that all facts are false, roughly because none of them more than appear to correspond to reality.) Instead, ethical statements (like all statements) are mere "interpretations".
Sometimes, Nietzsche may seem to have very definite opinions on what is moral or immoral. Moreover, his idea of noble men imposing their own values on the world suggests a non-skeptical meta-ethical view, namely ethical subjectivism. Note, however, that Nietzsche's moral opinions may be explained without attributing to him the claim that they are true. For Nietzsche, after all, we needn't disregard a statement merely because it is false. On the contrary, he often claims that falsehood is essential for "life".
In the juncture between normative ethics and descriptive ethics, Nietzsche distinguishes between "master morality" and "slave morality". Although he recognizes that not everyone holds either scheme in a pure fashion, he presents them in contrast to one another. Some of the contrasts in master vs. slave morality:
"good" and "bad" vs. "good" and "evil"
"aristocratic" vs. part of the "herd"
determines own values vs. determines values on an instrumental, utilitarian basis
not like Christianity vs. like Christianity
Nietzsche's assessment of both the antiquity and resultant impediments presented by the ethical and moralistic teachings of the world's monotheistic religions eventually led him to his own dualistic epiphany, resulting in his work Also sprach Zarathustra.
According to Dr. Norman Ravitch, professor of history at U.C. Riverside, "What Spengler, Toynbee, and Nietzsche can teach us is how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, despite superficial differences, were all forged and/or altered by a religious revolution in ancient Iran associated with the name Zoroaster or Zarathustra. The central notions of dualism between Good and Evil, Salvation through an Expected Messiah, and the Final Battle between St Michael and Satan animate these world religions and their devotees. Pragmatism, reason, and common sense have little place in these primitive Semitic world views. All conflict is interpreted as part of a cosmic struggle between Good and Evil and there is no room for compromise or tolerance."
Others would contend:
that Nietzsche admired many aspects of Islam and Old Testament Judaism.
that Iranians are Aryans, not "Semitic".
that Nietzsche's own thought, by design, left little room for pragmatism, common sense, compromise, or tolerance.
In his important work "The Anti-Christ[ian]" Nietzsche frontally attacked German scholarly Christianity for what he called its "transvaluation" of healthy instinctive values. He went beyond agnostic and atheistic thinkers of the Enlightenment who felt that Christianity may simply be an untrue religion to claiming it may have been deliberately propagated as an inherently bad and subversive religion (or in late 20th century parlance: a "psychological warfare weapon" or "ideological computer virus") within the Roman Empire by the Apostle Paul as a form of covert revenge for the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple during the Jewish War. However, in the Anti-Christ, Nietzsche has a remarkably high view of Jesus, claiming the scholars of the day fail to pay any attention to the man, Jesus, and only look to their construction, Christ. According to the American writer H.L. Mencken, Nietzsche felt that the religion of the ancient Greeks of the heroic and classical era was superior to Christianity because it portrayed strong, heroic, smart, and muscular men as role models and did not try to demonize healthy natural desires, such as creativity and writing poetry.
Nietzsche made it acceptable to view one's pre-Christian ancestors as "noble savages". His works have also been valued as a religious "deprogramming tool", such as in the large tome Which Way Western Man? by former American Christian minister and co-founder of the ACLU William Gayley Simpson in which he recounts in great theological detail how Nietzsche's works allowed him to see the light of Darwin and overcome the dysfunctional "slave morality" that had been programmed into him by society and co-religionists.
Nietzsche is important as a precursor of 20th century-existentialism and an inspiration for post-structuralism and an influence on postmodernism. However, dry academic summaries of his thought cannot capture the liveliness of his writing, and his extraordinary sense of humor, as in the famous exchange: "God is dead" - Nietzsche; "Nietzsche is dead" - God, and the riposte, "Some are born posthumously!" - Nietzsche. In many respects his writings today appear "romantic" relative to modern sociobiological and medical anthropological theory in the same sense that the Wright Brothers' flying machines appear quaint relative to modern high performance jets.
Nietzsche's works helped to reinforce not only agnostic trends that followed Enlightenment thinkers, and the biological worldview gaining currency from the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin (which also later found expression in the "medical" and "instinctive" interpretations of human behavior by Sigmund Freud), but also the "romantic nationalist" political movements in the late 19th century when various peoples of Europe began to celebrate archeological finds and literature related to pagan ancestors, such as the uncovered Viking burial mounds in Scandinavia, Wagnerian interpretations of Norse mythology stemming from the Eddas of Iceland, Italian nationalist celebrations of the glories of a unified, pre-Christian Roman peninsula, French examination of Celtic Gaul of the pre-Roman era, and Irish nationalist interest in revitalizing Gaelic.
Apart from "noble savage" and "religious deprogramming" themes, in his brazen work "The Anti-Christ" Nietzsche wrestled with a major tragic issue that remains very much with us today. The politics of urbanized society may tend to reverse the evolutionary processes that bred for various strengths and nobility in primitive man. Ugly, physically weak, and inadequate men who would never make it in a frontier environment nevertheless through low cunning and mafia-like behavior might through financial manipulation acquire control of society. In "The Anti-Christ" Nietzsche said that while it was necessary for Jews at points in their history to affect "slave morality" as an oppressed minority as a means to get their oppressors off their backs by deceiving them while hiding their own strengths, the deception practiced by Saul of Tarsus in spreading Christianity went too far in its social destructiveness. Hence a paradox: a person who practices "slave morality" shows true inferiority if he really believes in it, but one can show strength and superiority if one uses it as sheep's clothing to disguise the stalking wolf. (As Sun Tzu put it: "All war is based on deception.")
Some people have suggested that Dostoevsky may have specifically created the plot of his Crime and Punishment as a Christian rebuttal to Nietzsche. This cannot be correct, however, as Dostoevsky finished Crime and Punishment well before Nietzsche published any of his works).
List of Works
Die Geburt der Tragödie, 1872 (The Birth of Tragedy)
Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen, 1876 (Untimely Meditations)
Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, 1878 (Human, All Too Human)
Morgenröte, 1881 (Daybreak, or The Dawn)
Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882 (The Gay Science)
Also sprach Zarathustra, 1885 (Thus Spake Zarathustra)
Jenseits von Gut und Böse, 1886 (Beyond Good and Evil)
Zur Genealogie der Moral, 1887 (On the Genealogy of Morals)
Der Fall Wagner, 1888 (The Case of Wagner)
Götzen-Dämmerung, 1889 (The Twilight of the Idols)
Der Antichrist, 1895 (The Antichrist)
Nietzsche contra Wagner, 1895 (Nietzsche vs. Wagner)
Der Wille zur Macht, 1901 (The Will to Power, a highly selective collection of notes from various notebooks, not intended for publication by Nietzsche himself, but released by his sister)
Ecce Homo, 1908 (Behold the Man, an attempt at autobiography; the title refers to Pontius Pilate's statement upon meeting Jesus of Nazareth)
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