Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) remains one of the most talked-about philosophers of the 19th century, and continues to divide opinion. The Nazis claimed him to lend respectability to their political agenda; Christian thinkers have denounced him as a nihilist; but he has also been adopted by the left-inclined postmodernists. Such conflicting views of a philosopher who is acknowledged as one of the greatest of modern times ring alarm bells. Anyone who heeds such alarm bells discovers that there are many misunderstandings surrounding Nietzsche’s life and work. This essay attempts to explain some of the most important of them. I start by reviewing how he is perceived by other philosophers.
Three Peers’ Assessments
Will Durant (1885-1981) analysed the influence on Nietzsche of Charles Darwin. Nietzsche regarded the biological process of natural selection as biased against the exceptional individual: Nature protected the mediocre and eradicated the exceptional. Nietzsche supported the ideas of eugenics and of ennobling education. It is unclear whether Nietzsche was being racist or simply bemoaning the precariousness of the position of any superior individual who lived amid mass mediocrity. Nietzsche contradicts himself when, after arguing in favour of developing finer and stronger individuals, he suggests that it is futile to try to improve mankind, as mankind is only an abstract concept. To Durant, there was much of Plato in Nietzsche, such as in his defence of the superior individual and the aristocracy of the mind, as in his ‘superman’, an embodiment of Wagner’s ‘Siegfried’. To Durant, Nietzsche had great style but his philosophy required caution: ‘Nietzsche does not prove, he announces and reveals; he wins us with his imagination rather than with his logic’. Madness was the price that Nietzsche paid for his genius: ‘These dogmatic assertions, these unmodified generalizations, these prophetic repetitions, these contradictions – of others not more than himself – reveal a mind that has lost its balance, and hovers on the edge of madness.’
Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009), a Polish philosopher and historian of ideas, points out that Nietzsche has demolished the shell that had sheltered faith from the searchlight of reason, a shell maintained for the sake of the illusory comfort that religious faith provided. Nietzsche declared that reality was pointless; that the world had no meaning and made no distinction between good and evil; but even so, this was the only world. Madness was the result of Nietzsche’s consequent despair.
Roger Scruton (1944-) remarks that Nietzsche’s forthrightness has made him a favourite of the postmodernists. The postmodernists marginalise both truth and refutation, and seize on Nietzsche’s paradoxical statement ‘There is no truth, only interpretation’: ‘Either what Nietzsche said is true – in which case it is not true, since there are no truths – or it is false.’ Scruton’s view is that because of Nietzsche’s insanity it is unwise to adopt his philosophy as a source of edifying inspiration.
Nietzsche and Nihilism
Nietzsche has been incorrectly called a Nihilist. Nihilism, which maintains that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated, as nothing really exists, was the first blot inflicted on Nietzsche’s reputation, caused by taking some of his writings at face value.
In his notebooks, assembled posthumously by his sister under the title: ‘The Will to Power: Attempt at a Revaluation of all Values’, Nietzsche many times repeated ‘There are no facts, only interpretations’. All of Nietzsche’s isolated sentences associated with nihilism need to be understood in the context of his entire work. In many instances when he appears to be defending nihilism he is in fact bemoaning the nihilism that surrounded him. An example is the following quotation from his book ‘Beyond Good and Evil’:
‘The eagerness and subtlety, I should even say craftiness, with which the problem of ‘the real and the apparent world’ is dealt with at present throughout Europe, furnishes food for thought and attention; and he who hears only ‘Will to Truth’ in the background, and nothing else, cannot certainly boast of the sharpest ears. In rare and isolated cases, it may really have happened that such a Will to Truth – a certain extravagant and adventurous pluck, a metaphysician’s ambition of the forlorn hope – has participated therein: that which in the end always prefers a handful of ‘certainty’ to a whole cartload of beautiful possibilities; there may be even puritanical fanatics of conscience, who prefer to put their last trust in a sure nothing, rather than in an uncertain something. But that is Nihilism, and the sign of a despairing, mortally wearied soul, not withstanding the courageous bearing such a virtue may display’.
A biography of Nietzsche by Georg Brandes refers to several instances where Nietzsche’s apparent negativity and contempt are due to his acerbic style rather than to nihilism. Brandes also points out some of the positive things that accompanied Nietzsche’s negativity. In his The Birth of Tragedy (1872) Nietzsche wrote about the role of art in counteracting decadence and nihilism in scientism, historicism, and Christianity. Nietzsche attacked literature, not because he did not believe in it, but because he thought that literature was not fulfilling its role of promoting liberty and the progress of humanity.
Nietzsche and Nazism
Although Nietzsche’s time was characterized by the ideology of Teutonic supremacy and a wave of anti-Semitism, both of which the Nazis adopted, the philosopher’s association with Nazism1 was contrived by juxtaposing his writings, published and unpublished, in such a way that they would appear to justify aggression and domination for the sake of nationalistic and racial self-glorification. Sadly, one of the persons responsible for that was Nietzsche’s own sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who took charge of assembling the philosopher’s archive after his death in 1900. Elisabeth was the wife of Bernhard Förster, whom she accompanied to Paraguay in the 1880s to help him establish an Aryan colony named Nueva Germania, near a place called San Bernadino3.
The Nazis had already adopted Bernhard Förster as a figurehead, second only to the composer Richard Wagner, who, in addition to composing music designed to arouse nationalist sentiments, had been the originator of Nueva Germania. By pointing out Nietzsche’s friendship with Wagner and other things such as his idea of the superman, Förster-Nietzsche ingratiated her brother with the Nazis. But Nietzsche had many Jewish friends and was no anti-Semite. He repudiated Wagner when he realised how anti-Semitic he was. Further evidence that Nietzsche was not anti-Semitic is a Christmas letter that he wrote in 1887 to his sister, in which he set out his objections to her marriage to the anti-Semite Bernhard Förster.
Nietzsche’s idea of the superman was introduced in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, published in 1883, his most important work, a satire of both the religious gullibility of society and the nationalist-tinted glasses of many philologists. The character Zarathustra is the prophet Zoroaster, who was born on Lake Urmi and at age 30 went to the province of Arya, where he wrote the Zend-Avesta. Zarathustra serves as Nietzsche’s mouthpiece, through whom the philosopher affirms his atheism and presents his ideas of the superman (Übermensch), the strong man who lives by his own morality and vanquishes all opposition. Nietzsche bemoans how the conditions of the world are unfavourable to the superman, for natural selection (Nietzsche believes, though such a belief is contrary to the principle of Darwin’s theory) is guided by a ‘law of average’ which eliminates the superior specimens and favours the mediocre ones. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra speaks for him: ‘You [mankind] have made your way from worm to human, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now the human being is still more of an ape than any ape is.’ However, there is little doubt that Nietzsche’s superman came from Richard Wagner’s Siegfried, a character taken from Norse and Germanic mythology, who, according to Wagner, represents the ideal vision of the Aryan race, the man of the future, who must create himself by destroying mankind (or our notion of mankind), and displace Christianity. This appealed to Nietzsche because of his grievances with Christianity, which he defined as poor people’s Platonism.
Nietzsche and Postmodernism
Two French philosophers, Foucault and Derrida, began to associate Nietzsche with postmodernism, a chameleon ideology that has a number of mantles including the relativist idea that the universal realities of the world are social constructs based on language and communication. Ideologically, postmodernism favours the destruction of the present Western civilization so that it can be replaced by another that is post-industrial and post-capitalist. It maintains that the literary canon of the West has been constructed to preserve Western hegemony, and that scientific truth is no better than other types of truth.
One of the reasons why Nietzsche has been chosen as the face of postmodernism is his dualist understanding of the world based on an objective external representation as well as a subjective, inner, perception of ‘the will’, showing how mindless and aimless ‘the will’ can be. It can be argued that Nietzsche’s dictum ‘There are no truths but only interpretations’ suggests that the world is a ‘construct’ and thus fits well the post-modern ideology. However, the post-moderns ignored many things that Nietzsche wrote that do not conform to postmodernism. To give 2 examples: 1. Nietzsche praised science for having defied the lies of religion; 2. He criticised the false claims of truth based on the misuse of metaphors, metonyms and anthropomorphisms.
Nietzsche is perhaps the most talked-about modern philosopher among both scholars and the general public, although much of his notoriety has arisen from misunderstanding him. As I have tried to show in this essay, the association of Nietzsche with nihilism, nazism and postmodernism has resulted from unscrupulous and opportunist pursuit of agendas other than that of innocent enquiry. According to Nietzsche’s peers his philosophy is as complicated as his personality. It should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Jo Pires-O’Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, a cultural internet magazine dedicated to Spanish and Portuguese speakers: http://www.portvitoria.com/
1. Nazism. The supremacist and anti-Semitic ideology of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) created in 1920 from the German Workers Party (DAP). The Nazi ideology reached its maturity around 1862, coinciding with the year when Bismarck became the German Prime Minister.
2. Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic* pre-Islamic religion of Ancient Persia founded by Zoroaster in the 6th century BC. It was introduced to India by the Zoroastrians of the west coast of India, who were also called Parsees or Parthians, which means Persian. The Zoroastrianism introduced in India had already incorporated some aspects of Hellenism, during the Greek rule of Persia, as well as some aspects of Christianity, stemming from their warfare with the Armenians. *According to the narrative, the monotheism of Zoroastrianism came about after Ormazd, the god of creation, light and goodness, defeated his brother Ahriman, the spirit of evil and darkness.
3. Nueva Germania, near the town of San Bernadino, in Paraguay, was a project of 5 German families. Förster committed suicide after the project failed and Elisabeth returned to Germany. San Bernadino became the destination of Joseph Mengele and other Nazis who had escaped from the allies’ justice after the end of World War II.
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Durant, Will (1953). The Story of Philosophy. The lives and Opinions of the Great Philosophers. Simon and Schuster, New York. 412 p.
Kolakowski, Leszek (1990). Modernity on Endless Trial. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago and London
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Nietzsche, Friedrich (2009) Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by Thomas Common. . Project Guttenberg Europe.
Scruton, Roger (2004). Modern Philosophy. An Introduction and Survey. Pimlico, London. 611 p.
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (2011). Friedrich Nietzsche Source: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche/#LatPerWri188188
Acknowledgment: I am indebted to Guy Choat for revising and editing this manuscript.