In this lecture we will provide an introduction to some of Friedrich Nietzsche’s main philosophical ideas.
We will investigate his views on morality, nihilism, suffering, truth, the overman, amor fati, and the eternal recurrence. Before we proceed we must note that perhaps more than any other philosopher, Nietzsche’s ideas are open to multiple interpretations. In this video we will provide one such interpretation.
For Nietzsche philosophy was not, as he put it, a “critique of words by means of other words.” (Untimely Meditations, Friedrich Nietzsche).
Instead, for Nietzsche philosophy had a definite practical purpose: that being, to facilitate the emergence of the great individual who dedicates their life to growth and self overcoming.
Nietzsche believed that such a pursuit would provide one with the ability to completely affirm life in the face of suffering, pain, and tragedy. “There are heights of the soul from which even tragedy ceases to look tragic” wrote Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil. The great individual attains these heights.
Nietzsche viewed himself as the educator of such a great individual, whom he called the higher man. For this reason he saw himself as writing not for the masses but for the potential higher man alone:
“These alone are my readers, my rightful readers, my predestined readers: what do the rest matter? – The rest are merely mankind” (The Antichrist).
The higher man, Nietzsche maintained, is separated from the rest of mankind by the constitution of his internal being. Within the higher man exists an array of powerful and potent drives engaged in a continual battle with each other. The higher man, in other words, is a chaotic being who is at constant war with himself, and therefore one who suffers deeply and is always in danger of self destructing. In order to attain greatness and the ability to affirm life, Nietzsche believed that the higher man must impose order on his internal chaos. This is his life’s mission:
“To become master of the chaos one is…that is the grand ambition here.” (The Will to Power).
Because he suffers so deeply from the chaos that he is, there exists the possibility that the higher man will evade his life’s mission and instead seek out the comforts of mediocrity via conformity.
Nietzsche postulated that within every individual exists a ‘herd instinct’, that is, an innate need to obey and conform to the masses. Individuals satiate this need by obeying the accepted morality, that is, the designations of what is good and what is evil, of one’s culture.
“Morality is the best of all devices for leading mankind by the nose!”, proclaimed Nietzsche in The Antichrist. Such a morality, since it is accepted by the masses, Nietzsche called ‘herd morality’.
Nietzsche maintained that herd morality serves a clear purpose: it instills in mediocre individuals the conviction that their weakness is not a fault, but instead a strength.
“Verily, I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws”, Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
On the other hand, herd morality maintains that those qualities which the herd lack, are evil. As Nietzsche put it: “High and independent spirituality, the will to stand alone, even a powerful reason are experienced as dangers; everything that elevates an individual above the herd and intimidates the neighbor is henceforth called evil.” (Beyond Good and Evil) Therefore, with herd morality, as Nietzsche amusingly quipped, “the “sheep” gains in respect” (Beyond Good and Evil)
Since sheep-like qualities are championed by herd morality as being ‘good’, herd morality pressures individuals into becoming good, that is, weak and obedient. The higher man, if he is to achieve greatness must escape the clutches of herd morality, and renounce it in favour of his own self created and life affirming morality:
“Can you give yourself your own evil and your own good and hang your own will over yourself as a law?” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)”
In order to escape from the herd and live according to his own life affirming morality, Nietzsche thought it was essential for the higher man to separate himself physically from the herd and live a life of solitude.
Nietzsche believed that out of fear and laziness, the masses structure their lives so as to blind themselves to the deep questions of human existence:
“for the objective of all human arrangements is through distracting one’s thoughts to cease to be aware of life.” (Untimely Meditations)
The higher man, if he is to achieve greatness in life, must contemplate questions which the herd is too weak and scared to ponder. And to do this, he needs his solitude:
“For now he will have to descend into the depths of existence with a string of curious questions on his lips: Why do I live? What lesson have I learned from life? How do I become what I am and why do I suffer from being what I am?” (Untimely Meditations)
According to Nietzsche the deepest questions one can ask in life are: “why do I live?”, and “why do I suffer?’. In fact, Nietzsche believed that these two questions are really one and the same. Man needs to believe life has a meaning or purpose because of the fact that he suffers so deeply, and thus wants to be assured that he suffers for a reason:
“Man, the bravest of animals and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering. The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse that lay over mankind so far.” (On the Genealogy of Morals)
With his proclamation “God is dead”, Nietzsche prophesied the coming of an age when the interpretations of life’s purpose which had been dominant up to that point, most prominently the belief in a god, would be unveiled for what they are: mere myths or stories. Without the conviction that life has a goal or a purpose, Nietzsche understood that many individuals would fall into despair under the suspicion that we are nothing but meaningless animals in a meaningless universe.
Nietzsche discerned that this dark suspicion would usher in a state of nihilism, which is the belief that “everything lacks meaning” (The Will to Power). Without a goal or purpose to impose meaning on one’s suffering, one is left with the despair-ridden conviction that one suffers for no reason at all:
“Nihilism appears at that point, not that the displeasure of existence has become greater than before but because one has come to mistrust any “meaning” in suffering, indeed in existence. …it now seems as if there is no meaning at all in existence, as if everything were in vain.” (The Will to Power).
Although Nietzsche himself struggled with nihilism throughout his life, he didn’t believe life was devoid of meaning. Instead, he came to realize that nihilism is a consequence of the misguided attempt to acquire objective knowledge, or in other words, the desire for there to be an objective meaning to life that an individual can come to know.
Nietzsche believed that not only was there no objective meaning to life, but he claimed that truth does not exist and therefore objective knowledge about anything, including the ‘meaning of life’ is an impossibility.
Instead, according to Nietzsche an individual is always confined to know the world through one’s own personal interpretation of it:
“The task of painting the picture of life, however often poets and philosophers may pose it, is nonetheless senseless: even under the hands of the greatest painter-thinkers all that has ever eventuated is pictures and miniatures out of one life, namely their own – and nothing else is even possible.” (Human, all too Human)
Since one cannot escape from one’s own personal interpretation, or perspective, of life, Nietzsche understood that one should give up trying to search for the truth, as “there is no ‘truth'” (The Will to Power), and instead paint a picture, or in other words interpret existence, in a way that is ‘life promoting’, and for in doing so one will be able to escape nihilism by creating meaning in one’s life.
Since Nietzsche realized that the deepest question which confronts man is ‘why do I suffer?’, he understood the desperate need to first and foremost interpret suffering in a manner which would be life promoting.
Through his analysis of his own suffering, Nietzsche came to understand that “pain is not considered an objection to life.” (Ecce Homo) Instead, Nietzsche believed that a life without suffering and pain would be a miserable life, for he believed suffering to be a precondition of greatness:
“You want, if possible—and there is no more insane “if possible”—to abolish suffering. And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever…The discipline of suffering, of great suffering—do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?” (Beyond Good and Evil)
With the knowledge that with great suffering comes great advancement, Nietzsche understood that the higher man would be in need of an ideal, or a vision of perfection, to keep him motivated in his quest for greatness even in his darkest hours. Nietzsche invented the Ubermensch, or overman, as such an ideal.
“I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
The overman, as an ideal, is a perfect and powerful being, one who has overcome all his inner fears, weaknesses, and deficiencies, and thus one who soars above the rest of mankind. Since ideals can be approached but never realized on this earth, Nietzsche maintained that “never yet has there been an overman”. (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
The best one can hope for is to attain the perfection and power of the overman in rapturous moments, yet it is impossible to maintain this perfection, and after these ecstatic moments one must always revert back to being ‘human, all too human’.
In his state as ‘human, all too human’, Nietzsche understood that the higher man would become aware of his deficiencies and weaknesses, and would subsequently feel ashamed at the vast gulf which separates him from the perfection of the overman. Craving the unattainable perfection of the overman, the higher man would begin to hate his imperfect self. This self-hate, Nietzsche paradoxically held, would be the beginning of the higher man’s great love for himself. For the higher man would soon come to realize that without his inner deficiencies and his hatred of them, he would have no motivation to grow and overcome himself, and thus would remain forever stagnant.
“I love the great despisers because they are the great reverers and arrows of longing for the other shore.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
In the section titled ‘On the Vision and the Riddle’ in Nietzsche’s masterpiece, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche tells a parable, which is a story with an inherent spiritual lesson, which conveys how the higher man’s deficiencies are necessary for growth and the movement towards greatness.
Nietzsche begins the parable by conveying a striking image:
“A young shepherd I saw, writhing, gagging, in spasms, his face distorted, and a heavy black snake hung out of his mouth. Had I ever seen so much nausea and pale dread on one face?… My hand tore at the snake and tore in vain; it did not tear the snake out of his throat. Then it cried out of me: “Bite! Bite its head off! Bite!”.. The shepherd, however, bit as my cry counseled him; he bit with a good bite. Far away he spewed the head of the snake—and he jumped up. No longer shepherd, no longer human—one changed, radiant, laughing! Never yet on earth has a human being laughed as he laughed! O my brothers, I heard a laughter that was no human laughter.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
In this parable the shepherd represents the higher man, and the black snake the higher man’s great despair and fears which slither in his being. With the snake in his throat, the shepherd is the higher man in one of his darkest moments. But as he bites off the snake’s head, he overcomes his great despair and dark demons and emerges for a rapturous moment as the overman himself and he laughs a laugh which signifies his power, perfection, and his complete affirmation of life.
Nietzsche thought that the complete affirmation of life was the highest state a human being could attain. He put forth two intertwined concepts to represent the affirmation of life: amor fati, or love of fate, and the eternal recurrence.
Amor fati, or love of fate, is the culmination of the higher man’s greatness: “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati”, wrote Nietzsche in Ecce Homo. To love fate means to completely affirm life, and is thus the most difficult task there is. The difficulty lies in the fact that existence contains so much evil, pain, suffering, and tragedy. How can one completely affirm life in the presence of so much ugliness?
As we have seen, Nietzsche believed that one must experience great amounts of suffering and pain if one is to achieve greatness, or as he put it: “It is out of the deepest depth that the highest must come to its height.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) With this knowledge, he believed the higher man would understand that evil, pain, suffering, and tragedy are not ugly but actually have an inherent beauty to them, for latent within these aspects of existence is the potential for growth and self overcoming. Only if the black snake is crawling down one’s throat can one bite off its head and laugh a laugh that is no human laughter, but the laughter of the overman:
“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly…And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer” (The Gay Science)”
In order to determine whether one is in a state of Yes-saying, meaning a state of complete life affirmation, Nietzsche constructed the eternal recurrence as a psychological test.
In The Gay Science Nietzsche put forth the content of such a test:
“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small and great in your life will have to return to you – all in the same succession and sequence…Would you throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”” (The Gay Science)
The higher man, in affirming life, realizes that his tremendous moments were born from his darkest experiences, and therefore apprehends the inherent beauty in suffering, tragedy, and evil. With this understanding he does not condemn life as a pessimist despite the profuse suffering he has endured, but instead celebrates tragedy as a joyous Yes-sayer.
As he nears his death, the higher man wishes not for the peace of non existence but instead wishes the eternal recurrence were true so that he could repeat the struggle of life over and over for eternity.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche conveyed this by saying: “‘Was that life?’ I want to say to death. ‘Well then! Once more!'”
Good Works to Start One’s Study of Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of the Soul: A Study of Heroic Individualism – Leslie Paul Thiele
Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist – Walter Kaufmann
Nietzsche: Genius of the Heart (2009) – Charlie Huenemann
Nietzsche (Essay 2013) – Brian Leiter
Nietzsche’s System (2002) – John Richardson
The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism (2009) – Bernard Reginster
Nietzsche’s Ethics and his War on “Morality” (2002) – Simon May
Nietzsche: Naturalism and Interpretation (1999) – Christoph Cox
Nietzsche’s New Darwinism (2008) – John Richardson
Nietzsche’s Epic of the Soul (2005) – T.K. Seung
Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (2010) – Kathleen Higgins
Nietzsche’s Works – Recommended Translations
The Birth of Tragedy (1872) – Walter Kaufmann
Untimely Meditations (1873-6) – R.J. Hollingdale
Human, All Too Human (1878) – R.J. Hollingdale
The Dawn (1881) – R.J. Hollingdale
The Gay Science (1882) – Walter Kaufmann
Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) – R.J. Hollingdale
Beyond Good and Evil (1886) – Walter Kaufmann
On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) – Walter Kaufmann
The Case of Wagner (1888) – Walter Kaufmann
Twilight of the Idols (1888) – Walter Kaufmann
The Antichrist (1888) – H.L. Mencken
Ecce Homo (1888) – Walter Kaufmann
Nietzsche Contra Wagner (1888) – Walter Kaufmann
The Will to Power – Walter Kaufmann