Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Alice C. Linsley

Nietzsche called himself an “immoralist” and criticized almost all the moral philosophers. He wrote:

“Whether it be hedonism or pessimism or utilitarianism or eudaemonism: all these modes of thought which assess the value of things according to pleasure and suffering, that is to say according to attendant and secondary phenomena, are foreground modes of thought and naïvetés which anyone conscious of creative powers and an artist’s conscience will look down on with derision” (Peoples and Fatherlands, 7:225).

Nietzsche’s moral framework is his own peculiar interpretation of history. Nietzsche says that history reveals two kinds of morality, the morality of the masters and the morality of the slaves. The master morality ascribes to itself noble qualities such as bravery, daring, truthfulness and blondness, but regards inferiors as swarthy cowards, given to lies and vulgarity. According to Nietzsche, the poor and weak resented this and therefore constructed a different system of values and morals which stressed humility, sympathy and cooperation among themselves as the underdog. Nietzsche called this “a transvaluation of values” and he blamed it on the Jews.

He wrote, “It was the Jews who, reversing the aristocratic equation (good = noble = beautiful = happy = loved by the gods), dared with a frightening consistency to suggest the contrary equation, and to hold on to it with the teeth of the most profound hatred (the hatred of the powerless)” (On the Genealogy of Morals 19)

Nietzsche held that the revolt of the slaves reached it peak in first-century Christianity. He blamed Christianity for the downfall of ancient Rome, the fatherland of aristocratic virtues embodied in the Caesars. Rome was destroyed, in Nietzsche’s mind, because people began to honor four Jews: Jesus, Mary, Peter and Paul (GM 36). He argues that the success of Christianity meant the degeneration of the virtuous ideals of power in favor of compassion for the lowly.

He believed that immoral rulers and those who sought world domination embody the highest morality. He praised Napoleon as one who showed the world what it means to be noble. He wrote:

“But there are cases where a leader or bell-wether is felt to be indispensable; in such cases people keep trying to set up an aggregation of clever herd-men in place of real commanders: that is the origin, for instance, of all parliamentary constitutions. But what a blessing, in spite of everything, what a release from an increasingly unbearable burden is the appearance of an absolute commander of these herd-Europeans! This was demonstrated most recently by the effect of Napoleon when he appeared on the scene. The history of the impact of Napoleon can be said to be the history of the highest happiness this entire century has achieved…” (Beyond Good and Evil 86)

To achieve Nietzsche’s ideal of a master race, Christianity would have to be overturned. Nietzsche claimed that modern man no longer had need of the idea of God. He declared that “God is dead” and that the death of God would eventually lead to the loss of every universal perspective. Once this happens, there can no longer be any coherent sense of objective truth. Instead we would be guided in our moral decisions by only our own perspectives.

Some argue that Nietzsche’s view renders all truth so subjective that the very idea of truth becomes meaningless. However, this is not Nietzsche’s intention. He places a high value on truth as blunt honesty, especially among those who would be masters. What Nietzsche calls honesty is the opposite of compassion and sympathy. Nietzsche’s highest virtue is cruelty justified by power. Nietzsche calls for the strong in the world to break their self-imposed chains and assert their power and vitality upon the world. Nietzsche admits that “a philosophy that dares to do this has already placed itself beyond good and evil” (BGE 7).

Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra about how the Übermensch (Superman) must create the noble values of power, enthusiasm for war, and world domination to bring human existence to a new level. “Renouncing war,” Nietzsche wrote, “means renouncing the great life” (TI 23).

For Nietzsche the “will to power” is the secret of life and the destiny of humanity. He believes that a historical figure will arise who will bring perfection to the world. He describes this figure as a “Roman Caesar with the soul of Christ.” His methods will include predation and biological engineering (eugenics) of human populations. Perhaps his entire grotesque philosophy is summarized in this statement:

The strong men, the masters, regain the pure conscience of a beast of prey; monsters filled with joy, they can return from a fearful succession of murder, arson, rape, and torture with the same joy in their hearts, the same contentment in their souls as if they had indulged in some student's rag.... When a man is capable of commanding, when he is by nature a "Master," when he is violent in act and gesture, of what importance are treaties to him?... To judge morality properly, it must be replaced by two concepts borrowed from zoology: the taming of a beast and the breeding of a specific species.

Nietzsche has been the subject of numerous psychological studies. Some believe that his paranoia, lack of coherence, and grandiosity were products of a mind affected by advanced stage syphilis, which he was known to have. According to the memoirs of his sister, who cared for him, the signs of third-stage syphilis became acute in the last years of Nietzsche’s life. This may explain the grandiosity of his ideas.

It may also explain his irrational hatred of the Church and of women. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche maintained that higher forms of civilization require stricter controls on women. Nietzsche seemed to gain pleasure from insulting women. He was known for his statements such as these, "Women are less than shallow" and "Are you going to women? Do not forget the whip!" Perhaps his view of women is best summed in this statement: “And finally, woman! One-half of mankind is weak, chronically sick, changeable, shifty - woman requires . . . a religion of the weak which glorifies weakness, love and modesty as divine: or better still, she makes the strong weak - she succeeds in overcoming the strong. Woman has always conspired with decadent types - the priests, for instance - against the "mighty," against the "strong," against men. Women avail themselves of children for the cult of piety. . .”

Nietzsche devoted much of his writings to demonstrating that Christianity is irrational and degrading. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard agreed with the first part of Nietzsche’s evaluation of Christianity, but not the second part. Kierkegaard believed that the validity of Christianity was not dependent on its reasonableness and that the individual’s unique identity in the universe is derived from taking possession of his nature as a creature of God. Far from being degrading, Kierkegaard saw Christianity as essential to realize both one’s despair and one’s existence.

We will consider Kierkegaard in tomorrow's post.


Anonymous said...

What a horrific treatment of one of the greatest philosophic minds of the 19th century. Nietzsche may have been very wrong (so I believe) but he was one of the clearest, most creative and most evocative thinkers ever. He also understood the enormity of Christ is a way that few Christians do, unfortunately.

Alice C. Linsley said...

His philosophy encouraged horrible atrocities of the 20th century. Neitzsche's Immoralism, like nihilism, is a philosophical dead end.