Overcoming Nihilism

We have reached the final lecture in this series on nihilism. In the last lecture we learned that while Nietzsche saw nihilism as a disease, for those he characterized as active nihilists, nihilism presents an opportunity to greatly improve one’s life.

In this lecture we will investigate some of the ideas Nietzsche thought could assist those afflicted with nihilistic doubt.

Nietzsche was very critical of mankind. To him, most human beings were pitiful creatures, and he often  characterized the masses as ‘herd animals’. He reached such views because he saw the overwhelming majority of human beings as depressingly mediocre and weak. Every person has the potential to become great, to realize their dreams, to become what Nietzsche called a ‘higher man’, yet most people conform and follow the well trodden path to mediocrity.

Even those individuals considered ‘great’ by the masses, Nietzsche saw as nothing but individuals on the higher end of the spectrum of mediocrity.

“I saw them both naked”, Nietzsche tells us in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “the greatest people and the smallest people – all-too-similar to one another; even the greatest was all-too-human. The greatest was all-too-small!” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

Nietzsche longed for the emergence of truly great individuals, and in fact devoted his philosophical writings to such potential individuals. He thought that his ideas could motivate people to remove themselves from the herd and actualize their potential. In his autobiography, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche amusingly conveyed this idea.

“From this moment forward all my writings are fish hooks: perhaps I know how to fish as well as anyone? – If nothing was caught, I am not to blame. There were no fish.” (Ecce Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche)

In order to realize one’s potential, Nietzsche thought it necessary not to find a much needed purpose to life by clinging to a religious creed or mass movement, but instead, by looking within. Located in every single person is a seed of unrealized potential, and one’s purpose in life should be to see that such a potential is actualized.

In his biography on Nietzsche, Rudiger Safranski elucidates, using a passage from Nietzsche’s journals, exactly what Nietzsche thought to be the meaning of life:

“…we are not humans from the start; we need to become human. Toward this end, we need the insight “that only we are responsible for ourselves, that accusations that we have missed our life’s calling can be directed only at us, not some higher powers”. We are in no need of the delusion of a supernatural world, because the very task of becoming human is the truly colossal achievement.” (Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography: Rudiger Safranski)

Nietzsche sometimes referred to such a purpose as the journey towards ‘becoming who you are’. In his book, The Gay Science, he wrote:

“We, however, want to become those we are – human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves.” (The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche)

While everyone has an inner desire to become the best person they can and to realize their dreams, for most life is filled with disappointment, regret and often guilt at missed opportunities.

In one of his early essays, titled Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche pinpointed  fear and  laziness as two universal human characteristics which prevent most people from realizing their potential.

“In his heart every man knows quite well that, being unique, he will be in the world only once and that there will be no second chance…he knows it but hides it like a bad conscience–why? From fear of his neighbor, who demands conformity and cloaks himself with it. But what is it that forces the individual to fear his neighbor, to think and act like a member of a herd, and to have no joy in himself? Modesty, perhaps, in a few rare cases. For the majority it is idleness, inertia, in short that propensity for laziness…men are even lazier than they are fearful.” (Untimely Meditations, Friedrich Nietzsche)

The task of becoming who you are Nietzsche thought to be the most difficult task there is. Everyone has an inner voice that urges them to accomplish something great and to chase after their dream, but most people repress this inner voice because they lack the courage and strength  to listen to it.

“…they fear their higher self”, Nietzsche wrote in Human, all too Human, “because, when it speaks, it speaks demandingly.” (Human, all too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Nietzsche had some ideas for how one could find their purpose and the work towards it. Firstly, he thought  an individual required an ‘organizing idea’ – some ultimate goal they desired to accomplish. Such a goal could be to construct a  great philosophical system, to  become a top class athlete, make  the next medical breakthrough, or to  summit the most dangerous mountain peaks in the world.

The specifics of the goal are not important, what is important is the difficulty of the task; the more difficult it is, the greater one will have to become in order to accomplish it.

How does one find such a goal? There are some people who have an explicit dream in life and know exactly what their heart desires above anything else. But most people, even if they had the freedom and means to chase after a dream, wouldn’t know what to do. Nietzsche had some  advice for these dream-less individuals; look within yourself, and find out what you love, or as he puts it in Untimely Meditations:

“Let the youthful soul look back on life with the question: what have you truly loved up to now, what has elevated your soul, what has mastered it and at the same time delighted it? Place these venerated objects before you in a row, and perhaps they will yield for you, through their nature and their sequence, a law, the fundamental law of your true self…for your true nature lies, not hidden deep within you, but immeasurably high above you, or at least above that which you normally take to be yourself.” (Untimely Meditations, Friedrich Nietzsche)

An individual who finds a goal, and sets out on a path in life towards its realization, will soon find that such a path is fraught with  setbacks, difficulties, and  pain. The pain and suffering that those who strive after mighty goals inevitably face will in many case cause them to flee back to the comforts of mediocrity. Nietzsche thought such failed attempts occur largely because most people only see a negative side to suffering and are ignorant regarding its value.

If you have been following this lecture series, you will remember in lecture 2 we saw that the inescapability of suffering has led many to assume very pessimistic views regarding human existence.

Suffering, it is almost universally believed, is evil. When people suffer they automatically feel there is something wrong with them, something they need to ‘fix’. And practically everybody, when they feel some sort of psychological pain arising, at one point or another  will search for any form of distraction.

Nietzsche, as we will see, was intimately familiar with suffering and pain. His intimacy forced him to question the universal assumption that suffering is intrinsically bad.  He concluded that people think suffering is evil because it is unpleasant and painful, yet this is a false conclusion. Just because something is unpleasant or brings us discomfort, he reasoned, doesn’t mean it lacks value. 

In The Gay Science he elucidated this idea:

“There is as much wisdom in pain as there is in pleasure…that it hurts is no argument against it but its essence.” (The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche)

As we mentioned, Nietzsche was in a good position to philosophize on the nature of suffering. He endured more suffering, pain, and hardship than most can imagine.  “I am more of a battlefield than a man”, wrote Nietzsche in his autobiography. A large  portion of his adult life was spent struggling with physical ailments, specifically fits of vomiting and intense migraines which would sometimes last for weeks on end, which doctors could not localize to a specific cause.

He also isolated himself for much of his life, and rejected any emotional or psychological support from those closest to him, and strove to deal with all his problems with his own individual resources.

In addition to all this, despite being certain that his philosophy was of great value to mankind, he was largely ignored and never saw any success or recognition before his descent into madness. He was tormented with an extreme sense of loneliness and self doubt, afraid that his great works would sink unnoticed in the tumultuous river of human history.

However, over time, Nietzsche began to realize that his bouts with sickness and suffering actually presented great opportunities as they usually preceded great periods of growth. He also noticed that his more powerful and deep philosophical insights had sprung spontaneously from his bouts with pain.

Suffering is not evil, he came to understand, but instead should be considered among the greatest of all goods.

It has long been assumed that the chief end which human beings strive for is happiness. Nietzsche didn’t question this, he himself longed for what he called ‘the great happiness’, however, he thought that practically all individuals go about trying to arrive at happiness the wrong way.  Most do so by continually engaging in hedonistic activities, or in other words those which are performed solely for the pleasure they provide.

“But what if pleasure and pain should be so closely connected”, Nietzsche asked in his book The Gay Science, “that he who wants the greatest possible amount of one must also have the greatest possible amount of the other?” (The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche)

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, his most poetic of works, he expressed this same idea:

“I must first go down deeper than ever I descended—deeper into pain than ever I descended, down into its blackest flood. Thus my destiny wants it….Whence come the highest mountains? I once asked. Then I learned that they came out of the sea. The evidence is written in their rocks and in the walls of their peaks. It is out of the deepest depth that the highest must come to its height” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche)

The key to suffering, Nietzsche thought, is to know how to utilize it to one’s advantage. Everybody inevitably suffers, but, it is only the great individual who not only willingly faces and endures suffering, but invites it in with the knowledge that it presents an opportunity for growth and an increase of wisdom. “I assess the power of a will by how much resistance, pain, torture it endures and knows how to turn to its advantage.”, Nietzsche wrote in a passage contained in The Will to Power.

We can see that Nietzsche saw that is was essential for one to learn how to live with and utilize the beneficial aspects of suffering.   “Who will attain anything great if he does not find in himself the strength and will to inflict great suffering?”, asked Nietzsche.

A good way to conclude this lecture is with a shocking passage from The Will to Power which effectively reveals the importance of suffering for Nietzsche. In the passage Nietzsche addresses the potential higher man, the one who he dedicated all his philosophical writings to. He wrote: 

“To those human beings who are of any concern to me, I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self contempt, the torture of self mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not – that one endures.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

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