Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900, 56).
- “God is dead”? Yes, but the Greeks got there first, and then he only got half way. And the easy half!
- Less than helpful in what to do next.
- A reactionary conservative, not remotely in touch with Modernity’s liberal democracy project.
FEATURED: Edvard Munch (1863-1944) 1906. Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, oil, 201 × 160 cm, Thielska Galleriet, Stockholm
Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) Onions, 1881, Clark Art Institute.
COMMENT: Renoir’s down to earth – grounded – painting is a good antidote for the “brilliant”, intense malady-plagued Nietzsche, epitomising what’s missing from the great thinker’s work, a stroll through a village Monday morning, watching it come to life, pausing for coffee, buying onions on the way home. And garlic.
- Overrated. Nietzsche was a classic ivory tower intellectual, at home with his tomes, detached from, oblivious to the diverse, complicated fast changing “real world”.
- “God is dead”? Yes, but he only got half way. And the easy half!
- Furthermore the ancient Greeks (whose works he knew well) got there first, about 2.5 millennia earlier.
- Thus he left out what’s Man to DO next, sensibly do, after finding there is no God, beyond exercising a strong “will”?! Or the similarly trite, “Become what you are.”
- In particular he also claimed that with God “dead” there is no right “absolute” answer on what to do, that we are thus completely adrift, facing nihilism, making your / our own rules.
- He had a dim view of the capacities of the common man, indeed humanity itself, and thus had no regard for the capacity of post-Enlightenment Man to take mature responsibility for running his collective community affairs, once freed of fanciful (Christian) theological guidance.
- So basically Nietzsche never escaped the philosophical clutches of Tradition, of Man having to seek refuge one way or another in some theological construct. So he was a reactionary conservative, out of touch with, discounting Modernity’s liberal-democratic project, then underway particularly in the English speaking world.
- Implementing the liberal-democratic project is not easy, is messy, always will be, not least because of self-serving resistance by reactionary, “traditional” interests, especially religious and nationalistic. No quick fix.
- So end of the day Nietzsche’s greatest failing was irresponsibility, recognising that with freedom comes responsibility (ie the core message of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, restated by G. B.Shaw), ie in particular responsibility for devising sound Government,
- But at least he saw through Christianity (the Church), how it devalues, demotes Man, for its own ends.
- So why did he make the big splash, if after all his views really not that radical or novel? Because a/ he had his say at a very opportune time, as the challenges of Modernity were evident; b/ he said it colourfully; c/ he then became famous / infamous after being practically adopted by 20th C Fascist dictators; and d/ his fierce walrus-moustached face.
- He then became controversial when was keenly appropriated, promoted, exploited by self-serving Fascist forces.
- Discerning the “real” Nietzsche is harder because of his aphoristic dot point writing style, then his sister’s later self-serving changes to some works, adulteration.
- He sold poorly in his lifetime but became famous in his after-life.
Two key backdrops were;
1/ Germany on the up.
2/ Modernity marching on, the industrial revolution gathering steam.
Quick run through.
1/ God is dead. And we killed him! This just means traditional religion fails as an authentic life philosophy.
Also he specially criticised Christianity for its notion of original sin, devaluing Man, including its repression of sexuality.
Also he attacked faith as closing Man’s mind, rejecting curiosity. “Faith, according to Nietzsche, means not wanting to know what is true.”
‘If you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe,’ he wrote to his sister; ‘if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.’
So rightly he said religion is a cop out, eg faith = closing one’s mind, not wanting to know truth, denying curiosity
BUT the Greeks there long before in undoing gods, a bunch of them were. They saw through the G thing, saw gods merely as Man creations.
2/ BUT it worried him because he saw the “death” of God as the end of moral absolutes!?
So regarding a/ rules for living, and b/ meaning in life, he saw all as relative now, hence we are “Beyond good and evil”, facing a “consequent gaping hole in human existence”, thus making ours a nihilistic age.
Thus he discounted any attempts at an objective truth, claimed all knowledge is “contingent and conditional”, always shifting, a view now called “perspectivism”.
3/ so WHERE to now? Here is Nietzsche’s major error? Lapse.
He just said, tautologically, life is what you make it.
For an authentic life you must DO something, man should TRY.
“A favorite motto of Nietzsche, taken from Pindar, reads: “Become what you are.””.
But become what?
The closest he got was to suggest… must have WILL power. Which is trite? Even self-evident.
“The will to power”, ‘live dangerously’ (appealed to Benito Mussolini), as – Übermensch /‘the superman’, ‘Become who you are’, ‘Strife is the perpetual food of the soul’ (1862).
And will was weak or strong. And “The man of strong will and clear sight was the Übermensch (literally the ‘Overman’ (from “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”), the man who has overcome himself, often rendered as the ‘Superman’). Such a one was almost a god. “
And in DOING something YOU then make own rules/morality.
Since now “no set purpose, and therefore we had to devise our own.”
“‘Man should sooner have the void for his purpose than be void of purpose’; if we have our why we can put up with any how”.
He tried to define good and evil. ‘What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad? All that proceeds from weakness.’
“..by the mid-1880s, [some see] Nietzsche’s outlook was almost theological, though he had replaced God with the Superman, divine grace by will-power, and eternal life with eternal recurrence. “
This was HIS view, but vague, adds what for common man??
So.. “ freedom was the essence of his philosophy – and this, as George Bernard Shaw, a Nietzschean thinker, once wrote, ‘means responsibility’. (He added, perceptively, ‘That is why most men dread it’.)”
Here GB Shaw, for once, was dead right.
4/ Nietzsche also stressed the primacy of change, everything always in flux, again borrowed from the Greeks, Heraclitus. And which again is trite? Self evident?
5/ so in summary Nietzsche only got half way, and the easy half!
Yes God dead and yes Man should seek truth, an authentic life.
But beyond that he had NOTHING constructive to offer.
And leaving others to misuse his ideas.
6/ so in particular he MISSED the whole Modern notion of liberal order, of devising / implementing a collective rules based democratic process, Man running his affairs.
He saw liberalism as “herd mentality”. He did not trust the masses, had “lofty contempt” for them.
“…he decided that liberalism was a product of the ‘herd mentality’” And “He cast scorn on the ‘non-sense of numbers’ and the ‘superstition of majorities’’‘.
7/ Basically, fundamentally, Nietzsche never escaped the philosophical clutches of Tradition, of Man having to seek refuge one way or another in some confected theological construct. He was trapped in the past.
7a/ no confidence in Man, the common man.
In particular in looking at implications for wider society he saw “too many people lived inauthentic lives – they were ‘human, all too human’ (meaning weak, cowardly, self-deceptive, petty, selfish, lazy, small-minded, ignorant, dishonest, malicious, pathetic).”
But more than that his thought was antiquated, unscientific, “Nietzsche believes that aristocratic nature is to some degree bred into us, so that some of us are simply born better off than others”.
Are thieves and villains proportionately more common further down the socio-economic ladder?
7b/ So he favoured an elitist anti-democratic take on history. He wrote of “master-morality” and “slave-morality”, former as “good”, coming from “a warrior aristocracy and other ruling castes”, versus the latter as “bad”, “a reaction to master-morality”. He sees “Modern culture is defined by a tension between two kinds of morality”.
“… it is clear from his own writings that Nietzsche wanted the victory of master morality. He linked the “salvation and future of the human race with the unconditional dominance” of master morality and called master morality “a higher order of values, the noble ones, those that say Yes to life, those that guarantee the future”. Just as “there is an order of rank between man and man,” there is also an order of rank “between morality and morality “.
This is all crazy. Nietzsche stands as a good old fashioned reactionary.
8/ Other notions.
8a/ “Eternal return” / “eternal recurrence”
“Eternal return” (also known as “eternal recurrence“) is a hypothetical concept that posits that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form for an infinite number of times across infinite time or space.” From The Gay Science.
This talks to his preoccupation with change, which he found in the Greeks.
Does this add much?
8b/ “Apollonian” versus the “Dionysian”
“Artistic creation depends on a tension between two opposing forces, which Nietzsche terms the “Apollonian” and the “Dionysian”. From The birth of tragedy. “Apollo represents harmony, progress, clarity and logic, whereas Dionysus represents disorder, intoxication, emotion and ecstasy. ”
Which the poet Hölderlin had spoken of?
A useful observation.
9/ Nietzsche later was appropriated by others for their ends, especially by assorted nationalists, thence 20th C fascist dictatorships.
Yes Hitler read him, then feted Nietzsche’s sister Elizabeth, who did promote her brother’s application to Fascism.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra sold 140,000 copies in 1917.
But Nietzsche didn’t help, eg
‘You should love peace as a means of new wars,’ he wrote; ‘and the short peace more than the long … I do not exhort you to peace but to victory.’
And “and the man who fired the first shot in the war, the assassin Gavrilo Princip, admired Nietzsche and was given to quoting his works, especially the line: ‘Insatiable as flame, I burn and consume myself’.”
Was he speaking metaphorically? “When Nietzsche had talked of waging war, he had in fact meant fighting against one’s own weaknesses, self-deceptions and follies. He did not expect to be taken literally,”
10/ But Nietzsche was mostly not “political”, a nationalist, not an anti-Semite? Rather, per contra, he “hated the German militarism after 1871 Unification”.
“The new Reich, he said, is the ‘politicisation and thus destruction of the true German spirit’, which to his mind was cultural. “
And 1887, ‘He wrote in February 1887 that ‘I have no respect left for present-day Germany, bristling, hedgehog-fashion, with arms. It represents the most stupid, the most depraved, the most mendacious form of the German spirit that ever was’.”
He “scorned” Wagner’s love of Teutonic myths, his nationalism and anti-Semitism.
So broadly speaking we cannot blame him for the German 20th C rampage.
“ If thinkers are to be held responsible for glorifying war… then those figures – from John Ruskin to Max Weber – who glorified real war must be indicted before N. Nietzsche’s views were not ‘militarism run mad’.. they were individualism run mad.”
Irony that “his individualism – which in political terms equates with anarchism – would have been even more opposed to the far greater collectivised tyranny of totalitarianism. Nevertheless both Mussolini and Hitler admired him.”
“Hitler too was impressed. He read him as a prisoner in Landsberg (‘my university’), or so he said, and later gave Mussolini a copy of the collected works for his sixtieth birthday. … In 1934 Hitler travelled to Weimar to pay his respects to Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, presenting her with a huge bouquet of flowers and speaking of his ‘unchanging reverence’ for her ‘estimable brother’.“
But “the version of Nietzsche of which many fascists approved was that painted by his sister in “The Will to Power”. Elizabeth evidently did have extreme nationalist, racist and fascist sympathies, and her husband more so. “
11/ A thought. It seems likely Nietzsche’s big health problems – right through life, including syphilis, which finished him? – drove, influenced his thought? Eg his affection for Schopenhauer and especially his stress on WILL, on the individual taking the reins.
“Perhaps Nietzsche had to cultivate heroic will-power in order to avoid succumbing completely to ill health…. the hero of his great book of 1885, Zarathustra, affirms life nobly, joyfully and sometimes even ecstatically, despite all its problems and disappointments. “
Influence too his idea of ‘eternal recurrence’, “one of his most curious late ideas…”
12/ Interesting, Nietzsche’s tale helps remind us that Liberal democracy is very much an English achievement, emerged there, with help from the Dutch. So the whole notion of Democracy was radical in Europe then, offended many conservatives.
Though Greeks were there 2500 years before.
So the real English achievement was developing a practical working replacement for God!
Though the outcome will always be messy, a work in progress, never complete, never come boxed, wrapped and ribboned.
Thus Man can find Meaning, find collective moral standards.
If he works at it.
And arguably these “values” are ABSOLUTE, have universal applicability, are not relative, anything goes.
Thus Franklin Delano Roosevelt was clearly heading in this direction in his famous early 1941 State of the Union “Four Freedoms” speech, free speech, free religion and freedom from want and fear. Not a bad start,
Unfortunately his grand post-war vision (which later included the United Nations) was brutally hijacked after WW2 by not one but two “Communist” dictatorships, first the USSR, giving us the 44 year long Cold War, and second, from 1949, “Communist” China, which famously changed economic direction after Mao’s death, but remains staunchly authoritarian. This sad outcome also gave us the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Both states are of course far more nationalistic than they are “Communist”. Thus their evident observed preoccupations do not extend to liberating the oppressed proletariat.
And around 75 years after WW2 these two antagonistic anti-democratic major powers are still with us, still allergic to liberal-democracy.
Influences on Nietzsche?
Greek philosophers, especially pre-Socratic Heraclitus, that all is change, “who stressed competition / emotion rather than mere logic”;
The Greek materialist thinkers, “who denied the existence of anything metaphysical (including a self separate from the body)”; also “Darwin and other evolutionists, who saw no reason to presuppose the existence of a creator”.
Schopenhauer (Mr Pessimism, Schopenhauer, only death will end your misery!) impressed, was a major stimulus to his interest in philosophy, partly because of his pessimistic outlook on life. “It’s best to envisage the world as a sort of penal colony, insisted Schopenhauer: after all, life is ‘a disappointment and a cheat’ (words he wrote in English), death a welcome oblivion”. ‘No rose without a thorn,’ he quipped, ‘but many a thorn without a rose.’
This appealed to the suffering Nietzsche?
Schopenhauer saw us in two worlds, the superficial “world as representation”, which we see, and the “world as will,” which lies behind the senses, and is the “real world”
The other major influence was Wagner, whom Nietzsche met in Switzerland. ‘When I am near him,’ he wrote in August 1869, ‘I feel as if I am near the divine.’ They quarrelled in the late 1870s, like over Wagner’s nationalism and ant—Semitism, but Nietzsche took from him and his music was the “notion of the hero”.
From a conservative family. He was born in 1844 at Röcken, near Leipzig, in rural Prussian Saxony, son of a Lutheran pastor, both his grandfathers were Lutheran ministers. His father (who died 1849) was a royalist, called him Friedrich Wilhelm after the King of Prussia. Bright early, educated in Naumburg, at Pforta boarding school and at the universities of Bonn and Leipzig. Then, at the young age of 24 (1868), he became Professor of Philology (specialising in classical Greek language and culture) at the University of Basel in Switzerland.
Awkward socially? Contracted syphilis early?
He had suffered migraine headaches and poor eyesight from early years, volunteered to serve as a nursing orderly in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, he soon collapsed from dysentery and diphtheria. He was never really well again.
By 1879 N’s health so poor he retired on a small pension from Basel University, began travelling – to Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France – living simply, incessantly writing.
“In January 1880 he was suffering a ‘semi-paralysis which makes it hard for me to talk’ and also ‘furious attacks’ which had him vomiting for three days and nights at a stretch”
On 3 January 1889, in Turin, he “saw a cabman beating his horse”, intervened, “when he retained consciousness, he was no longer sane”.
“For the last 11 years of his life, from the age of 44, he was looked after by his mother and then his sister, Elizabeth.. for the last two years he could not speak. He died on 25 August 1900”.
Yet even before 1889 there were signs that Nietzsche was becoming unbalanced. Self-obsessed. His short autobiography Ecce Home (‘Behold the man’, words used by Pilate about Christ), published in 1888, contains chapters with the titles ‘Why I am so wise’, ‘Why I am so clever’, ‘Why I write such excellent books’, ‘Why I am a destiny’.
Understanding his work?
Problems, 1/ his sister? “The problems of [understanding] N.. compounded by .. his sister edited his surviving notes, containing ideas he’d rejected, into an often misleading work, The Will to Power, published 1901.”
2/ his writing style. “.. in his prime, Nietzsche sometimes wrote in poems, parables, aphorisms, riddles and metaphors which are often difficult to fathom”.