I do not like Friedrich Nietzsche. This is a fact that you probably could have figured out simply by reading the title of this article, but I feel that it is something that I need to state directly and clarify before I begin.
What I write about Nietzsche will be distinctly biased toward the negative and this negativity is based purely on emotion and personal opinion. Now anyone taking a scholarly approach toward this subject would undoubtedly tut-tut this sort of thing. I mean basing one’s critical analysis on how you “feel” about it is simply unscientific. And to be fair this is true to a certain extent if I was coming at this from an academic point of view. But a) I’m not a scholar coming at this from an academic point of view and b) that’s not why I do philosophy.
I read philosophy for enjoyment. Philosophy makes me feel things – confusion, fear, happiness, frustration – and that is its charm and beauty and why I like it so much. And it is because of the feelings it evokes that challenges what I think I know and makes me question long-held beliefs and opinions. In the case of Nietzsche, the feeling he evokes is anger and instead of challenging long-held beliefs, he reinforces them. So I guess in that sense he is educational. I suppose. But to be quite honest I could do without his bullshit. Shall we begin?
“You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”
― P.G. Wodehouse (Carry on, Jeeves)
So who is Friedrich Nietzsche, what is he all about and why is he full of shit?
That, my friends, is a long and nuanced subject that many people more educated than myself have attempted to tackle over the years, but this being a short blog post I’ll nutshell it for you:
Nietzsche was born in 1844. He grew up in a domineering family, was sickly and frail and was dominated by most of the people he knew for the majority of his life. He eventually contracted syphilis and went insane attempting to hug a horse being whipped on the street.
That is the most condensed and biased version of Nietzsche’s life you will ever read. But I don’t say these things to be flippant (actually yes I do, but there are other motivations as well) they are in fact relevant to his philosophy. No one who does philosophy exists in a vacuum. We are all influenced by our surroundings, our families, our culture, and our education. Nietzsche is no different and his upbringing and his relationships had a profound effect on his thought.
The major ideas of Nietzsche
Will to Power
This is the prominent concept of Nietzsche. This is what, according to Nietzsche, drives us and compels us to “better” things. In the simplest form, you could think of it as “motivation” but it is more than that. It is the fundamental will to exert strength on the outside world or, to put another way, to put forth your dominance over others. Taken in a certain way, and Nietzsche wrote in a very ambiguous way, it could mean there are those who are more prone to have dominance over others and those who are prone to be dominated. There is, as Nietzsche put it, a master-morality and a slave-morality and one is definitely better than the other. Nietzsche makes clear that the master-morality has an obligation to do right by the slave-morality … up to a point. Eventually, the “natural” order of things must take over. See: Übermensch
“…do you want a name for this world? A solution for all its riddles? A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men? – This world is the will to power – and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power – and nothing besides!” ― The Will to Power
The Death of God
“God Is Dead.” Probably his most famous quote. Nietzsche is considered an atheist, and this may be the case, but I have always felt that this limited or downplayed what his point really was. I believe what Nietzsche was saying was that society (particularly European society) had reduced the influence of religion so that “God” as a concept was no longer a defining motivation in people’s lives. Other things – money, career, consumerism – took precedence and in doing so “killed” God. It is an interesting idea, I will admit, but when taken in conjunction with the Will to Power and the Übermensch it becomes a form of nihilism.
This is a concept that poses everything that has happened and will happen again. Reincarnation. In Nietzsche’s view however, it is not a religious concept but a physical one. There is no supernatural involvement but a “scientific” one in which life returns again and again in a similar form for an infinite number of times across infinite time or space. This was not posed as a reality, per se, but as a hypothetical question that Nietzsche himself called “horrifying and paralyzing.” (On a personal note this is the one concept of Nietzsche that has stuck with me more than any other and something that I have incorporated in my writing multiple times. Just goes to show that even if you disagree with someone/something you can still find value in it).
The Overman. The Superman. The one thing that bothers me most about Nietzsche’s philosophy. If the Will to Power is taken to its ultimate end you will achieve the ultimate person. The rest of society is the herd, following blindly the will of the masses, sheep. The Overman will surpass all morals and ethics. In fact, morals and ethics as we know them will have no meaning. Since the “masses” are subject to conformity and mediocrity and have no will of their own it is “right” for the Übermensch to take control. This particular idea has been adopted by many to justify any kind of atrocity from the Third Reich to Donald Trump.
“I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?… All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood, and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is ape to man? A laughing stock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be that to overman: a laughingstock or painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape… The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth… Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss … what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.” ― Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Prologue)
Of course, these are just a few of the wide number of things Nietzsche had to say. But these are, to me, the ideas that stand out and the ones that resonate. Not in a good way I should point out.
And I should point out that these ideas are compelling. Nietzsche was very good at what he did. He wrote in pithy aphorisms that could be easily digested and regurgitated back in neat little quotes – often out of context but that never seemed to matter much – think of Chicken Soup for the Philosopher’s Soul.
And when he was attacked, by critics or contemporaries or even philosophers long dead, he went on the offensive. Nietzsche would “defend” himself by degrading others. And when criticizing others Nietzsche would frequently use derogatory terms or be just plain mean. He referred to Kant as a “moral fanatic” and called Plato “boring” and when talking about Mill he called him, and I’m not joking, a “blockhead”. Nietzsche was the Bill O’Reilly of philosophy.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
How many times have you seen that on a Facebook feed or an Internet meme? Regardless of the fact that it is meaningless bullshit. It is supposed to represent the indomitable spirit overcoming overwhelming odds but in reality, it reinforces a stereotype; if you ask for help you are weak. And this is the key to understanding Nietzsche. A weak man who hated weakness.
And here is where my feelings kick in. I do not consider it a weakness to ask for help, to admit there are things beyond what you can do on your own. But to do this in Nietzsche’s philosophy you would be the herd, the slave-morality. I suppose you could say that Nietzsche was a pessimist and I am not and that is where the difference lies, but there is more than that. And that difference comes from a basic acknowledgment of pain and suffering.
There is pain in life. People suffer. This is the truth. We have hurt inflicted upon us and inflict, intentional or not, hurt upon others. This fact is something that could cause one to come to the conclusion that there is no hope, no good that life can bring. What follows from this is the attitude “take what you can while you can” because no one will give back to you. And, sadly, there are those who are rewarded for this kind of thinking. This leads to more pessimism. And the cycle continues. But this is the philosophy of the selfish and it is exemplified in the Will to Power.
But Nietzsche and his Will to Power forgets something fundamental in human existence. And that is acceptance and submission. Yes, there is hardship and pain. Yes, there is suffering. But in order to overcome it we must acknowledge it and, at our most vulnerable, allow ourselves to submit to another – be it a doctor, a family member, or a friend – and in doing so this opens us up to others and, in a subtle way, the world. We are social animals. The myth of the lone, resilient cowboy makes for a nice movie but in reality, it is family, companionship, and togetherness that compels us to move forward.
In Nietzsche’s philosophy, this interaction is either forgotten or treated as a weakness. The Uberman rises above others by preying on “weakness” or by some manufactured evolutionary right, by capitalizing on pain.
Nietzsche was a man dominated by others, a sickly man who’s intelligence and generosity were taken advantage of; he was a weak person. And so he created a philosophy of false mastery, a fantasy where there were only heroes and sheep. An illusion where the best people are celebrated and herd punished and used. He despised religion but created for himself an intellectual version of a religious doctrine. This in and of itself is sad and pathetic but Nietzsche, as I said, was very good at what he did and so this pseudo-religious pessimism caught on.
And every want-to-be dictator and political strategist and high school loner latched on to this Übermensch shit and pretended it was real. A masturbatory fantasy of power that could justify every base instinct and selfish motive and every failure as just the misunderstanding of the foolish, self-elected elite. Deep down the Übermensch was going to emerge – they thought – regardless of the situation or the ideology they proposed. And that to me is the legacy of Nietzsche – generations of assholes hurting others for no reason other than their own self-gratification.
Nietzsche’s life in many ways was a sad one. He, through the power of an amazing intellect (and I do acknowledge he was a brilliant man), created for himself an illusion of control. A fantasy of power. But in the end, he collapsed in insanity reaching out to the least among us, a wounded animal. He clung weeping and weak attempting to help the suffering in the days before he died. This, to me, is a fitting epilogue.
Unfortunately, this is forgotten in favor of the lustful embrace of power that his philosophy enables.
So, if I may be so bold, fuck Nietzsche and the philosophy he inflicted upon us.
Hope you enjoyed this and if not rip me apart in the comments – I’d actually like to hear what you have to say. Back in next time with my next entry in the Big Ideas: Pay Attention: Buddha and Emptiness. See you then.