April 5, 1997
Nietzsche: A Century Before his Time
"Few philosophers have come to be as widely misunderstood. Fewer still have suffered the indignity of having their views and writings bastardized by those that were trusted to do otherwise. In Nietzsche, we have both... coupled with the truth... a man angry with his people, his nation, and with society as a whole." (A).
In a different time, in a different place, the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche could have gone entirely unnoticed... or have been hailed as revolutionary and unique. The unique time when he lived, the growth of Germany’s anti-Semitic movement, great strides in science and the birth of Communism, placed Nietzsche at the dawn of a new Europe, and a new world. His unfortunate death, after years of insanity, would prevent him from seeing many of his predictions actualized, yet his words would live on to be forever a part of German, and world, history.
Born Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche on October 15, 1844 in Rocken, Prussia, Nietzsche came into a family of ministers. His father, his father’s father, and his mother’s father were all pastors. Indeed early in life he seemed likely to follow in their footsteps, but the early deaths of his father, when he was five, and his brother, less than two years later, left him the only man in his house and is likely the cause of his maturity at a young age.
As a student, Nietzsche excelled, graduating from the prestigious Schulpfortosa boarding school, and going on to study theology, and philology(the study of ancient records and texts). After attending both the University of Bonn and the University of Leipzig, he accepted a professorship at the University of Basel in Switzerland in 1879, where he would remain until retiring ten years later.
Nietzsche’s health was poor for the overwhelming majority of his life. He suffered from eye strain, and migraines, as well as being perpetually plagued by various ailments caused by his brief stint in the military. The constant pain led him to experiment with drugs, but pain was with him constantly until his death, after eleven years of insanity.
Though his health was a constant drain on his energy, Nietzsche authored many major works including Thus Spake Zarathustra, a fictitious tale, as well as Beyond Good and Evil, where Nietzsche develops and presents his position on systems of morality and introduces his Overmen system.
Nietzsche begins by addressing the two most prevalent systems of moral value. The first he calls ‘Master Morality.’ Master morality embodies the traits valued by the ruling class, the aristocracy, and includes strength, nobility, and bravery. Master morality begins with the assumption that certain individual are inherently superior to others and places the many in the position of servitude to the few. Lower classes are viewed as common, mediocre, and inferior. Nietzsche call the second system ‘Slave Morality.’ In slave morality, traits such as kindness, compassion, and peace are highly valued. These values were developed as revolt against the upper, ruling, class. The aristocracy is viewed as cruel, strange, and dangerous. Nietzsche viewed traditional Judeo-Christian values as synonymous with slave morality, which he believed seriously undermined the authority of the ruling class and was unproductive.
Nietzsche developed his own system of morality. In it, he envisioned a group of people he called "Ubermensch," which is translated as Overmen or Supermen. ‘Overman morality’ is similar to master morality; it values power and strength, and also supports the idea that some people are inherently better than others. Nietzsche further developed his moral system by addressing human emotion and humanity’s ‘animal desires.’
Nietzsche viewed emotions and desires, such as love, hate, fear, and the human sex drive, as an enormous source for energy. He believed that by developing discipline over emotions, which he called, "sublimation" (C), their energy could be focused on constructive outlets. Nietzsche felt that one of the greatest flaws in Judeo-Christianity was that these traditional values taught people to ignore, or destroy their desires. He felt that these emotions and desires were responsible for giving humans their passion and that passion can lead to great chaos or great advancement. Nietzsche thought subliming emotions would allow advancement and prevent chaos.
In his view of a society of Overmen, Nietzsche pictured powerful individuals with great strength not just physical, but also mental. An ideal Overman would be incredibly individualistic and creative. An Overman would owe allegiance only to the moral values he deemed valid. The Overman’s power would come from his discipline, and not simply from brute force, though Nietzsche felt force, when used intelligently, and in a calculating manor, could be an acceptable tool.
Though Nietzsche didn’t name any Overmen of his time he suggested several historical figures as role models: Socrates, Jesus Christ, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Goethe, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon.
Nietzsche is also know for his stance against religion and the concept of ‘God’. He felt that humans, by living life guided by the hope of an eternal afterlife, were failing to extend themselves to the greatest of their abilities. In his opinion, people must seek power for and through themselves. Though promoting a substantially different philosophical view, Karl Marx, who lived at roughly the same time, also believed that religion limited the actions of people and prevented them from actualizing their potential. Seeking values which are humanistic as opposed to religious was a characteristic of much nineteenth century philosophy; Nietzsche was a pioneer along this path of thought.
In January of 1889, Nietzsche collapsed in Turin. He returned to Basel, and eventually lived with his sister, Elizabeth. During this time, Nietzsche rapidly descended into the depths of insanity where he would remain until the end of his life. Although his actual writing had ceased, he possessed notes for several planned works which he would never complete. His sister, however, began working on an archive of his works and, in December of 1895 attained the complete rights to all of his work. The year after his death, she published his final book, The Will to Power. Unfortunately, during this same time Elizabeth became deeply involved in the growing German anti-Semitic movement and his final published piece greatly reflected her political agenda. It will never be known how much, or how little of his original writing actually came out in The Will to Power. The unfortunate circumstances of his final work continue to follow his work to this day.
When the German Nazi party was developing, Adolf Hitler adopted The Will to Power as philosophical justification for extreme nationalism and eventually ethnic cleansing. It is true that much of Nietzsche’s work lends itself to a pro-totalitarian interpretation. His Overmen can be seen as comparable to Hitler’s Aryan race. However, Nietzsche differed radically from Hitler, and most scholars attribute this connection to misinterpretation and the ‘editing’ his sister did prior to the publication of The Will to Power. "It is generally accepted in the intellectual community that Hitler’s usage of Nietzsche’s material was distorted and taken out of context" (C) and it is unlikely that he would have supported the Nazi party, had he lived to see its rise.
The most glaring inconsistency between Nietzsche’s Overmen and the Nazi movement concerns violence. Nietzsche saw Overmen as individuals who obeyed an iron-like discipline, and used violence only as a carefully wielded tool. Hitler’s supporters were the embodiment of the rash, emotional, savage beings that Nietzsche believed his Overmen would be superior to. While Nietzsche was no fan of democracy, he stressed at all times the need, the absolute need, for discipline. Nietzsche may have supported a government of strong leaders, but those leaders would have to be governed by self-discipline; Nietzsche would doubtlessly have seen Hitler as just the kind of madman his Overmen would overcome.
Friedrich Nietzsche’s final years were spent in a state of insanity. His sister abused his name and recognition to promote her own anti-Semitic agenda. Hitler misinterpreted and misquoted his works to build a Fascist state, and begin a Holocaust. History records him as an elitist, a Fascist, and a proto-nazi.
Yet at the same time, Nietzsche developed a new branch on the tree of philosophy. His work, and the work of others at this time, brought philosophy, theology, and sociology together in a revolutionary new way. Nietzsche was a pioneer; he asked the question, ‘Why?’, and wouldn’t accept the easy answer.
As time passes, the truth of Nietzsche’s work comes through. Nietzsche never lived to see his predictions become truth, but others did. Eventually history will record Nietzsche as a genius, perhaps "...an insane genius" (B), but a genius none the less. "Good ravings," it’s been said, "take a few decades to be come prophecies" (B).
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche passed away on August 15, 1900.
Annotated Works Consulted
Many of the works consulted did not list an author so each source has been assigned a letter. Quotations are referenced by letter