Hello & Welcome! Today we’re talking about Fredrick Nietzsche, the Ubermench and one of the founding voices for the philosophy of Nihilism. If your new to the blog allow me to explain, I’m the pocket theologian and here we like to take a theological or philosophical topic and talk about it in as much time as it takes to do it justice. First we’re gonna discuss Nietzsche’s life, then some notable figures some key characteristics, and some misconceptions before summarizing and wrapping up.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844, in Röcken bei Lützen, a small village in Prussia (part of present-day Germany). His father, Carl Ludwig Nietzsche, was a Lutheran preacher; he died when Nietzsche was 4 years old. Nietzsche and his younger sister, Elisabeth, were raised by their mother, Franziska.
Nietzsche attended a private preparatory school in Naumburg and then received a classical education at the prestigious Schulpforta school. After graduating in 1864, he attended the University of Bonn for two semesters. He transferred to the University of Leipzig, where he studied philology, a combination of literature, linguistics and history. He was strongly influenced by the writings of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
In 1869, Nietzsche took a position as professor of classical philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland. During his professorship he published his first books, The Birth of Tragedy (1872) and Human, All Too Human (1878). He also began to distance himself from classical scholarship, as well as the teachings of Schopenhauer, and to take more interest in the values underlying modern-day civilization. Nietzsche then suffered his first of many nervous disorder, and resigned from his post at Basel in 1879.
After this Nietzsche became kind of a nomad, living in Switzerland, France, and Italy as well as his mother’s house in Naumburg all over the course of 10 years, however this period is debatably Nietzsche’s most productive period in his life, publishing Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which was published in four volumes between 1883 and 1885. He also wrote Beyond Good and Evil (1886), The Genealogy of Morals (1887), and Twilight of the Idols (1889). It in these works written after the 1880s, that most of Nietzsche’s famous saying were said, sayings “God is dead” and the “Ubermench” and “Will to power” were all said in this period. Unfortunately though all good things must come to an end.
Nietzsche suffered a collapse in 1889 while living in Turin, Italy. The last decade of his life was spent in a state of mental incapacitation. The reason for his insanity is still unknown, although historians have attributed it to causes as varied as syphilis, an inherited brain disease, a tumor, and overuse of sedative drugs. After a stay in an asylum, Nietzsche was cared for by his mother in Naumburg and his sister in Weimar, Germany. He died in Weimar on August 25, 1900.Nietzsche’s life was short but burned brightly, influences several important figures, speaking of that let’s discuss some of those influences.
Nietzsche- the man himself, Nietzsche came from a religious background, and various text’s have speculated about how this influenced him to develop such a harmful and critical view of Christianity. Ranging from inner resentment of his father, to questioning the practices of the church as a whole. Regardless though Nietzsche’s influence on religion and philosophy have been felt monumental since his death. With both developing new doctrines and ideals in his wake. I would argue that Nihilism as Nietzsche presents it provides an absolute extreme that most philosophies try to avoid.
Arthur Schopenhauer- A major influence on Nietzsche, Schopenhauer was a German philosopher during the 1800s, who saw himself as a student of Immanuel Kant, a very famous philosopher in his own right, who will definitely get his own episode here at the Pocket Theologian. But Schopenhauer is known for being a philosophical pessimist, seeing the entire world as a blind and insatiable metaphysical will. Basically there is no God, there is no cosmic creator, everything merely happens because it happens. Everything wills itself to happen. Because of this human action and desire are utterly meaningless. Now Nietzsche was inspired by a lot of what Schopenhauer said, but didn’t agree with him on this point.
Nazi Party- Now unfortunately I have to turn to the most unfortunate influenced person of Friedrich Nietzsche, and that is the nation of Germany. Specifically the Third Reich led by Adolf Hitler. Now it is not accurate to say that Nietzsche advocated for the horrendous crimes committed by the Nazi’s. Let me make that clear, he was not a Jean Paul Marroe to the Nazi’s Revolution. He died in 1900 long before Hitler ever arrived on the scene, however he was German, meaning that his influence in his home country could still be felt all those years later. So like we’ll discuss in a moment, a lot of Nietzsche’s philosophy is very empowering and strengthening, advocating for self empowerment over terrible circumstances. Now to paint a picture for a moment, Germany after the treaty of Versailles was in a very dark place. So many German’s flocked to Nietzsche’s philosophy, however it is NOT accurate to say that all German’s are Nihilists, for the same reason that it is not accurate to call anyone a Nihilist. However, it is accurate to say that the Nazi’s took Nietzsche’s empowerment message, which was written with the Macro or world scale in mind, and bent it to apply to their current situation. Most of Nietzsche’s beliefs were meant to apply to the way the larger world was, not the way a country should act. But the Nazi’s didn’t care, they bent Nietzsche’s philosophy to fit their goal and their empowerment rhetoric, and have left a bad scar on Nietzsche’s reputation. Nazi pseudo-philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Alfred Baeumler, all claimed to have been influenced By Nietzsche.
Finally I don’t want this section to go by without mentioning Nietzsche’s phenomenal effect in the fields of psychiatry, this seems to be due mostly to the fact that Nietzsche in all of his books writes very passionately and viscerally, giving vivid and descriptive detail of what he thinks and feels about things and this explanation led many in the field of psychiatry to have epiphanies on how the human mind worked. Leading to the field growing and becoming more formal, early psychiatrists such as Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, and Carl Jung all cite Nietzsche as an influence in their work.
The Ubermench (Superman)- So if I had to assign a tagline to Nietzsche’s philosophy which has since been called Nihilism I would say it is the philosophy of Self Overcoming. Nietzsche himself uses a fancy word for it that I’m not even going to try and pronounce. But basically Nietzsche says that the best of man, called an Ubermench or Superman in German can rise up above all that life throws at us and embrace these difficulties. Nietzsche offers four main recommendations for how to accomplish this:
Own up to envy- In Nietzsche’s mind envy in itself is not a bad thing, but rather an internal recognition of what we could be or want to be. Nietzsche says we should use this instinct as motivation to accomplish what we want or desire, as opposed to be ashamed of it, like he says Christianity says. Now Nietzsche is NOT saying you can achieve your dreams or what you’re envious of, as we saw he definitely didn’t get what he wanted in his life. But to Nietzsche in order to actually live life, you need to attempt to achieve this goal, and only when you’ve failed can you give up. Rather than hide away and do nothing your whole life.
Don’t be a Christian- So yeah we’ve now come to THAT uncomfortable part of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Nietzsche was an outspoken hater of Christianity. And many scholars have attempted to diagnose the exact reason why he hated it. Ranging from an inner hatred of his father which he projected onto the church that his father represented, to just an anti-establishment mentality. Nietzsche explains that Christianity and it’s teachings prevent people from living out their instincts and urges. Basically he saw Christianity as holding humankind back from their true potential. Nietzsche’s interpretation of Christianity is that a bunch of weak people, who were unable to achieve what they wanted, made a virtue out of their cowardice and weakness, essentially flipping the dynamic of the world. Now as a philosopher I find this dubious, and as a theologian I find it inaccurate. If this small group existed, how were they able to attain enough power to flip the dynamic? And why did people listen to them if they were weak? This approach seems antagonistic and inaccurate to me.
Never Drink Alcohol- Nietzsche was absolutely against the practice of drinking alcohol, only having water and sometimes milk throughout his life. But Nietzsche’s thoughts on Christianity were mired in his hatred of alcohol ironically. He said that alcohol and Christianity were “the two great narcotics of european civilization” these two things trick you into thinking that things are fine, no change is necessary and your poor shameful life is perfectly fine. This to Nietzsche is absolutely horrendous, pain and misery in his mind motivate people to change their lives, to get up and make things happen, if these are gone, then the world slides into complacency.
God is Dead- One of Nietzsche’s biggest quotes, while is has been taken and attributed to mean that Nietzsche was an atheist, but this actually isn’t the case. Nietzsche instead meant that the progress of the western world, and the hypocrisy of the western church has metaphorically killed the Christian God. Because his supporters are no longer able to dispel the questions his detractors are asking. Moreover, Nietzsche does not see this as something GOOD. He sees this as a terrible irreversible action. You see, Nietzsche was a bit of a hypocrite. Because he HATED Christianity as we’ve discussed, however he DID see the benefits of it. For example, Nietzsche noticed that people were more willing to act ethically if they were Christian. You see Nietzsche noticed that the church provided a moral ungirding to society, so that things never got truly out of control. He saw this as society advanced and outgrew the notion of a God, to be slipping, and he was horrified. He hoped that philosophy and art would step up to fill the gap, but wasn’t sure if this would ever happen.
That Nihilism has concrete structure- This by and large appears to be untrue. No one philosopher has nailed down Nihilism to be “about” anything per se. Plenty of philosophers have speculated about Nihilism, however very few have fully developed it. While you will find book after book after book about Buddhism, Platonism, Stoicism; Nihilism does not have this same luxury. Becoming more associated with some personal philosophers private beliefs that a philosophical system all it’s own. In fact it’s much easier to explain Nihilism for what it doesn’t believe than what it does. And this is why no one can really say they are a Nihilist. Or why no one can really be called a Nihilist. Because simply put Nihilists don’t believe that anything has inherit meaning. But that’s it, and really dear reader, to be honest, that seems overly absolute. I think this school can only really be examined as a possibility, like an option to all other philosophical systems, that a particular concept has no meaning, but otherwise it doesn’t hold much weight to me. Or at least not nearly as much as the pessimist or cynical schools of philosophy.
That Nihilism is evil- So dear reader if you’ve read all those parts where Nietzsche demonized Christianity and naturally made the assumption that Nietzsche and Nihilism are the devil incarnate, I completely understand. However, many Christians and even non-Christians. See Nihilism as this absolute evil, that gives way to vulgarity and anarchy and that there is no redeeming features of it. This however is NOT, I repeat, NOT accurate. Nihilism is not evil, nor is it good, it is merely an idea. Like all philosophy it isn’t the idea that matters, it is what people do with the idea. And while yes many people have used this idea harmfully, I think many people can use the idea correctly. To me Nihilism stands on the precipice of philosophy, an extreme that helps to ground and understand all other philosophies. Because when it comes to intellectual discourse I think it’s easy for one to loose oneself in their one rhetoric, while Nietzsche and Nihilism definitely don’t have this problem. While, like I said in the previous comment, Nihilism on it’s own is hard to define, in comparison to other philosophies it suddenly becomes clear, and one can see what their philosophy is supposed to be like in comparison.
That Nihilism and Existentialism share roots- So we haven’t discussed Existentialism here at the Pocket Theologian yet, and that’s because most of the philosophical lines of thought that we’ve followed have predated Existentialism by a good deal. And I wanted to wait and discuss it when we discussed Søren Kierkegaard. But to briefly explain it here, Existentialism as the name implies is occupied with the individual’s significance and existence in the world. While one can definitely see Nietzsche dipping his toes into this pool, he didn’t seriously develop it, nor cast much thought into it. Nietzsche was more occupied with a person earning significance that through what significance was or means. Basically, Nietzsche was concerned with the process, not the goal. Therefore it stands to reason that Nietzsche is a nihilist, since he didn’t believe in ethics, which existentialism still holds open as an option. However I will comfort you reader that it is NOT inaccurate to call Nietzsche an existentialist. However it is much MORE accurate to call him a Nihilist.
Closing Thoughts & Big Questions:
So that’s Nihilism, the belief that nothing carries inherent value, or at least the version of it that Nietzsche believed. Now Nietzsche’s form of Nihilism is very unique in that it’s honestly not that depressing like many believe Nihilism to be. It’s empowering, strengthening, meant to be used as a rallying point for a general shift in the world. Before it was taken and bent by other not to good natured people giving it the reputation it has today. But to be honest, I wanted to discuss Nietzsche for one clear reason. We’re discussing the apocalypse in our theology series, and I feel the general consensus of the world is “It’s not right now so who cares?” and because of this general lack of urgency I wanted to hold up Nihilism and examine how a nihilist may look at a possible apocalypse.
Nihilism and the Apocalypse:
So a Nihilist or at least a Nietzsche branded Nihilist would probably disavow Christianity’s apocalyptic narrative. Meaning that Revelation would be dismissed, and unless they were raised Jewish the End of Days would probably be as well. But to look at our criteria for our apocalypse series under a Nihilistic viewpoint.
General depravity- Nihilism wouldn’t see the term “depravity” as accurate, since Nihilism holds that there is no higher morality, no superior “good” and “evil” but just various morality system that help keep people in check and destroying the world. So a Nihilist would not believe in a general depravity, they may however see the little man being bullied by a much larger group and see that as either an abuse of power, or the Ubermench making their will known on the slaves.
Prophecy- Nihilism would dismiss prophecy completely. Schopenhauer said that the world is the product on an unknown random cosmic will, thus it cannot be predicted. Nietzsche disagreed with him on some points, but even so, most likely doubted the idea of being able to perceive the future or be able to prevent catastrophe.
Redemption- Finally Nihilism does not believe in Redemption, it believes that if something wrong is done to you, than you should have the strength to take revenge. Nihilism believes in vengeance, not mercy. It believes that only the strong should be allowed to live and that they will naturally rise to the top.
So let me ask you dear reader, these viewpoints all hold apocalyptic narratives as dubious at best; do you read Revelation or biblical prophecies and hold skepticism? Do you hold Nihilistic leanings? And if you do, beware, because sometimes when you stare into the abyss, now formless without God, the abyss sometimes stares back.