Friedrich Nietzsche


Cover of Thus Spoke Zarathustra


Friedrich Nietzsche

October 15, 1844 – August 25, 1900

Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher of the late 19th century who challenged the foundations of traditional morality and Christianity. He believed in life, creativity, health, and the realities of the world we live in, rather than those situated in a world beyond. Central to Nietzsche's philosophy is the idea of "life-affirmation," which involves an honest questioning of all doctrines which drain life's energies, however socially prevalent those views might be. Often referred to as one of the first "existentialist" philosophers, Nietzsche has inspired leading figures in all walks of cultural life, including dancers, poets, novelists, painters, psychologists, philosophers, sociologists and social revolutionaries.  His writing included critiques of religion, morality, contemporary culture, philosophy, and science.  His style of writing was distinctive, displaying a fondness for aphorism (opinion of the writer expressing a general truth or wise observation often in a clever way) and paradox (a true statement that leads to a contradiction, counter intuition).

Nietzsche began his career as a philologist (study of literature and text) before turning to philosophy. At the age of 24 he became Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Basel, but resigned in 1879 due to health problems, which would plague him for most of his life. In 1889 he suffered a mental collapse, living out his remaining years in the care of his mother and sister until his death in 1900.


Of major philosophers, Nietzsche has generated possibly the least consensus. One can readily identify his key concepts, but the meaning of each, let alone the relative significance of each, remains hotly contested. Nietzsche famously claimed that "God is dead", and this death either results in a radical perspective or compels one to confront the fact that truth had always been a perspective. Nietzsche also distinguished between master and slave moralities, the former arising from a celebration of life, the latter the result of resentment at those capable of the former. This distinction becomes in summary the difference between "good and bad" on the one hand, and "good and evil" on the other; importantly, the "good" man of the master morality equates to the "evil" man of the slave morality.

The rise of morality and of moral disputes thus becomes a matter of psychology; Nietzsche's perspectivism likewise reduces epistemology (branch of philosophy that studies knowledge and belief) to psychology. One of the most recurrent themes in Nietzsche's work, therefore, emerges as the "Will to Power". At a minimum, Nietzsche claims for the will to power that it describes human behavior more compellingly than Plato’s eros (passionate love), Schopenhauer’s "will to live," or a utilitarian account of morality, among others; to go beyond this would involve interpretation.

Much of Nietzsche's philosophy has a critical flavor to it, and much criticism of his work has arisen from the fact that "he does not have a system". However, Nietzsche himself expressed a general disdain for philosophy as the construction of systems — indeed, he says (for example) in the preface of Beyond Good and Evil that many systems built by dogmatist philosophers have relied more on popular prejudices (such as the idea of a soul) than anything else. Concepts still associated with a more constructive project include the Ubermensch (variously translated as superman, superhuman, or overman) and the eternal return (or eternal recurrence). Nietzsche posits the overman as a goal that humanity can achieve for itself, or that an individual can set for himself.

Nietzsche contrasts the Übermensch with the Last Man, who appears as an exaggerated version of the degraded "goal" that liberal democratic or bourgeois society sets for itself. Both the Übermensch and the eternal return feature heavily in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, A Book for All and None (Also Sprach Zarathustra, Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen, 1883-85), is one of Nietzsche's most famous works, and Nietzsche himself regarded it as among his most significant. It is, in effect, a manifesto of personal self-overcoming. Thirty years after its initial publication, 150,000 copies of the work were printed by the German government and issued as inspirational reading, along with the Bible, to the young soldiers during WWI. Though Thus Spoke Zarathustra is antagonistic to the Judeo-Christian world-view, its poetic and prophetic style relies upon many, often inverted, Old and New Testament allusions. Nietzsche also filled the work with nature metaphors, almost in the spirit of pre-Socratic naturalist philosophy, which invoked animals, earth, air, fire, water, celestial bodies, plants, all in the service of describing the spiritual development of Zarathustra, a solitary, reflective, exceedingly strong-willed, sage-like, laughing and dancing voice of self-mastery who, accompanied by a proud, sharp-eyed eagle and a wise snake, envisioned a mode of psychologically healthier being beyond the common human condition. Nietzsche refers to this higher mode of being as "superhuman" (übermenschlich), and associates the doctrine of eternal recurrence -- a doctrine for only the healthiest who can love life in its entirety -- with this spiritual standpoint, in relation to which all-too-often downhearted, all-too-commonly-human attitudes stand as a mere bridge to be crossed and overcome.

Nietzche injects myriad ideas into the book, but there are few recurring themes. The overman, a self-mastered individual who has achieved his full power, is an almost omnipresent idea in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Man as a race is merely a bridge between animals and the overman. Nietzsche also makes a point that the overman is not an end result for a person, but more the journey toward self-mastery.

The Übermensch is one of the many interconnecting, interdependent themes of the story, and is represented through several different metaphors. Examples include: the lightning that is portended by the silence and raindrops of a traveling storm cloud; or the sun's rise and culmination at its midday zenith; or a man traversing a rope stationed above an abyss, moving away from his uncultivated animality and towards the Übermensch.

The symbol of the Übermensch also alludes to Nietzsche's notions of "self-mastery", "self-cultivation", "self-direction", and "self-overcoming". Expostulating these concepts, Zarathustra declares:

I TEACH YOU THE SUPERMAN. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man?

All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and ye want to be the ebb of that great tide, and would rather go back to the beast than surpass man?

What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame.

Ye have made your way from the worm to man, and much within you is still worm. Once were ye apes, and even yet man is more of an ape than any of the apes.

Even the wisest among you is only a disharmony and hybrid of plant and phantom. But do I bid you become phantoms or plants?

Lo, I teach you the Superman!

The Superman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The Superman SHALL BE the meaning of the earth!

I conjure you, my brethren, REMAIN TRUE TO THE EARTH, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not.

Despisers of life are they, decaying ones and poisoned ones themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so away with them!

The eternal recurrence, found elsewhere in Nietzsche's writing, is also mentioned here. The eternal recurrence is the idea that all events that have happened will happen again, infinitely many times. Such a reality can serve as the litmus test for an overman. Faced with the knowledge that he would repeat every action that he has taken, an overman would be elated as he has no regrets and loves life.

The will to power is the ability humans strive toward in life. Contrasted with living for procreation, pleasure, or happiness, the will to power is the summary of all man's struggle against his surrounding environment as well as his reason for living in it.

Copious criticisms of Christianity can be found in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in particular Christian values of good and evil and its purported lie of an afterlife. Nietzche sees the complacency of Christian values as fetters to the achievement of overman as well as on the human spirit. Contrasting sharply with Christianity, Nietzche praises lust, selfishness, while reproaching the rewarded concepts of pity and love for neighbors.

God is Dead

Thus Spoke Zarathustra also contains Nietzsche’s famous dictum “God is dead”.  The concept of "God is dead" is not meant literally, as in "God is now physically dead"; rather, it is Nietzsche's way of saying that the idea of God is no longer capable of acting as a source of any moral code.  Nietzsche recognizes the crisis which the death of God represents for existing moral considerations, because "When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident.... By breaking one main concept out of Christianity, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one's hands." This is why in "The Madman", the madman addresses not believers, but atheist — the problem is to retain any system of values in the absence of a divine order.

The death of God is a way of saying that humans are no longer able to believe in any such cosmic order since they themselves no longer recognize it. The death of God will lead, Nietzsche says, not only to the rejection of a belief of cosmic or physical order but also to a rejection of absolute values themselves — to the rejection of belief in an objective and universal moral law, binding upon all individuals. In this manner, the loss of an absolute basis for morality leads to nihilism. This nihilism is what Nietzsche worked to find a solution for by re-evaluating the foundations of human values. This meant, to Nietzsche, looking for foundations that went deeper than the Christian values beyond which he felt most Christians refuse to look.

Nietzsche believed that the majority of people did not recognize (or refused to acknowledge) this death out of the deepest-seated fear or angst. Therefore, when the death did begin to become widely acknowledged, people would despair and nihilism would become rampant, as well as the relativistic belief that human will is a law unto itself—anything goes and all is permitted. This is partly why Nietzsche saw Christianity as nihilistic. To Nietzsche, nihilism is the consequence of any idealistic philosophical system, because all idealisms suffer from the same weakness as Christian morality—that there is no "foundation" to build on. He therefore describes himself as "a 'subterranean man' at work, one who tunnels and mines and undermines.