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Nietzsche’s Contribution is Morally Ambiguous

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Diablo Valley College Philo-225 History of Philosophy, Part II

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

When I think of Nietzsche I think of that brave student in Tienemen Square, Beijing in China standing in front of that tank. Nietzsche wanted to bring Christendom or Christianity as well as Judeo-Christian culture to a stop. In a sense he was right, but in another he was wrong. The culture he was trying to stop was ambiguous, good and evil, but his prophetic voice was no less ambiguous, replete with good and evil.

Nietzsche may have read about Jeremiah the prophet whom God made into a brazen wall to stand against the people, who had to turn toward him, because the prophet wouldn’t turn to them (Jer. 15:19-20). So Nietzsche stood like a wall and would not be conformed, but attempted to make society conform to him. Most often people end up conforming to society and it is the wall that rolls over them. Their easy way out is: “Why not do it? Everyone is doing it.” Nietzsche was not that way.

Nietzsche: “Brave, unconcerned, mocking, violent – thus wisdom wants us: she is a woman and always loves only the warrior.”[1] (Nietzsche is probably referring to wisdom personified as a woman in Proverbs, chapter 9.)\

You see the metaphor. Conan the Barbarian gets the votes. Christian values are part of the herd mentality featuring humility, passivity, dependency, real low-life, while the superior master morality, love of domination, delight in one’s own talents, fearlessness, are condemned as cold-hearted and arrogant.[2] Thus with Christian values people are made docile: they become like so many sheep. (Kierkegaard spoke of them becoming geese waddling to market.) Nietzsche would have none of that. But his message is ambiguous: was he just a sheep in wolf’s clothes, or was he really just a wolf? Perhaps he would rather speak of a lion, eagle, or bear than a sheep, but does he want to tear up people or bring life?

Nietzsche worked mostly with Philology,[3] to which the theologian Ritschl inspired him. He was very much immersed in classical Greek culture through these studies and so became part of the renaissance that brought new life to German culture from the classical Greeks rather than the juridical Romans.

Nietzsche was four when his father, a Lutheran minister, died. He was raised by doting aunts, a mother, grandmother, and two sisters, who called the studious boy, “the little pastor.” When he rebelled he left and got drunk on a Sunday, no less. He tried to be a complete Hedonist at the University of Bonn, but soon could not be one of the guys. He soon became disgusted with that kind of life. Having rejected his faith, it was Schopenhauer’s philosophy that spoke to his heart.

Nietzsche felt himself to be one of the superior people, who need no God as a crutch. He had the “tragic optimism or the sense of joy and vitality that accompanies a superior individual’s clear-sighted imposition of his own freely chosen values on a meaningless world.”[4] He must have considered himself one of the world-historical heroes Hegel romantically doted on. If Schopenhauer (1788-1860) advised curtailing desires and detachment for the will to life, Nietzsche affirmed human desires in an important way, which is healthy.

Nietzsche also changed Schopenhauer from the will as expression of life to the will to power. He felt that there was a universal will to control others and impose our will upon them.

     For a short stint in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Nietzsche became a medic. Bismark (1815-1898) had unleashed a series of wars to unify what we now know as modern Germany into an empire distinct from that of the old Austrian Hapsburg line. Nietzsche saw Bismark who ruled with ”blood and iron” as one of the men with the will to power.[5] He also read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), and connecting him to his thoughts, came up with the concept of an overman (the term superman now has other associations). From my adversarial point of view, the overman is a product of social Darwinism: survival of the fittest, natural selection, durations of time meandering by chance, evolution’s narration superceding ethics. If we say “conventional” ethics, e.g., “bourgeois ethics”, then a corrective would be involved. But to see “blood and iron” Bismark as the archetype speaks volumes. If Nietzsche had thought the archetype as Christ or Buddha or Socrates, that would have been quite different. Tielhard for example, makes Christ the omega point of human evolution and the children of God the coming new species.

     Perhaps the argument that Nietzsche was a destroyer of false values and a creator of healthier ones is right. I have not read Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and Genealogy of Morals (1887). They contain the “gospel” of the overman! What a gospel! To speak of being merely human in a disparaging way is like you are only somebody if you take steroids to be that person. To speak of being merely human is like singing, “What’s love got to do with it? It’s only a second-hand emotion!” What qualifies as a first-hand one?

     For Nietzsche obviously power is basic not love.

     My argument that Nietzsche’s overman entails social Darwinism comes out clearly in his allusion to inferior types and superior ones. Perhaps the Nazis could pounce on that quickly. Who represented “decadent religion” better than the Jews? Conventional ethics could have trouble eliminating them, while a reevaluation of values may be able to consider the possibility for evolutionary reasons. Now Nietzsche may not have supported the Nazis if he had lived in their time, but they surely found some of his ideas conducive to their nefarious military and anti-Semitic policies.

     Nietzsche proclaimed that God was dead! It was the end of history and he was the last philosopher. Nietzsche’s conjures up no tomorrows with an end-of-the-world intensity quite well – but while we think of the holocaust and the crucifixion – we can say that while we all carry around bloody knives (as Nietzsche says) and we all have to confess we used them, whose side are we on? Nietzsche takes his stand against the crucified. (I don’t know if he was anti-Semitic.) He does not have hope in the new selves that arise from the resurrection but from the overman brought about by evolutionary will to power.

     In Habermas’ Life-world and Two Systems, the love in the life-world is primary, power of the political system is secondary. But Nietzsche places power into the life-world, if I am not mistaken. Let me quote Nietzsche against himself:

I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them.

The will to a system is a lack of integrity.

(But power belongs in a system not in the life-world that Nietzsche is shaping with his thought.)

The peculiar nature of Nietzsche is that he proclaims his philosophy in the prophetic voice against God and the prophets. I think Nietzsche identified with Dionysus, but he was more like a version of Prometheus who wanted to steal more than just the fire from the gods, he wanted to have their divinity too by his will to power. Perhaps Nietzsche thought he was only discovering what the scientific and technological age had already gone through but did not have the courage to consciously bring to mind.

(I believe Luther was the greater person, because he wanted grace from heaven, but knew it had to come completely freely as a gift. Human being could receive divine attributes from God by a marvelous exchange that takes place in love.) Nietzsche’s will to power and his glorification of war violate the loving transaction, making distortion of humanity and violence the result.

Something to me is very disturbing about Nietzsche. Reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra, it was obvious that sometimes he had a sick mind. He writes about a shepherd in spasms who had a heavy black snake hanging out of his mouth. And he is saying, “Bite off the head!” Unless he is telling a true story, I think that is a rather sick image. (I know about a true story, however, that transpired in Albania, where a grandfather died while sleeping, because a snake crawled into his mouth.) But Nietzsche presents it as an image.

A young Jewish intellectual and Nietzsche became close,

 but she chose a different man to marry and Nietzsche was devastated. Really if you hear about how he had to watch every little thing he ate and take complete care lest indigestion throw his system off for a week, peering with his eyes almost on the paper as he wrote, half-blind, he certainly does not resemble the overman he is writing about, unless his relentless continuation of his writing can be so interpreted.

He writes about his overman as the superior people of the newly evolving race, this overman the real god. But anything more than human must be less than human, because a human being is the most wonderful thing that one can become. I believe Kierkegaard is correct in this respect. Nietzsche said that we had to overcome man, because man was as much a joke to the overman as the ape is to man.

Joke: we had a humorous saying when we were around the table eating as a family. One would ask, “Are you a man or a mouse?” The other would answer, “Shut up and pass the cheese.”

I really believe that the Christian message has been corrupted by Nietzsche as a will to power that fears being snuffed out by the sociality inherent in love. I believe Teilhard’s thinking is better:

It is a false habit of mind to set off the group against the individual. True unity differentiates, it does not confound.

There is a huge difference between uniformity and unity, of course. The one is an external conformity that controls persons from the outside. The other is an internal bond or tie that frees up persons to be their unique selves as different as they really are. Nietzsche’s attempt to impose his will on others meant that he was into control and had trouble with the kind of faith that is full of trust.

     I would have to leave Nietzsche saying he is ambiguous. First he says the good always crucify one who invents his own virtue. They have no choice.[6] Here he seems to take the right side. Then the other side:

     Alas my animals, only this have I learned so far, that

man needs what is most evil in him for what is best in him – that whatever is most evil is his best power and the hardest stone for the highest creator; and that man must become better and more evil. “My torture was not the knowledge that man was evil” – but I cried as no one has yet cried: “Alas, that his greatest evil is so very small! Alas, that his best is so very small!” 

Wouldn’t this glorify the NAZIS? I’ve heard this argument.

[1] Douglas Socio, Archetypal Wisdom: and Introduction into Philosophy, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishers, 1992), p. 459.

[2] Ibid., p. 472.

[3] The study of written records, establishing their authenticity, determining their original form and meaning.

[4] Ibid., p. 463.

[5] Joke: Goebbels seeing Goering hoisted on a junkyard magnet, observed,

“He certainly has an iron will.”

[6] Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Walter Kaufmann, editor, (New York: the Viking Press, 1966), p. 212. The next quote 196-197. Also see p. 288.


Written by peterkrey

November 7, 2006 at 7:35 am

Posted in Philosophy

One Response

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  1. I’m not quite sure how I found this website, but I’m more than inclined to think that you have misread the “symbolisms” and the metaphors that reside in every wordplay of Nietzsche’s aphorism. Further, if you are providing a criticism for Nietzsche, it would be much plausible to put Nietzsche in his own context without abuse to other frameworks you’re using. And, it’s really funny when you add ad hominem to your arguments. Good day.


    January 27, 2007 at 2:32 pm

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