Speaking of Nietzsche

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.

Literature Consulted
Babich, Babette (2000). “Future Philology! by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff – Translated by G. Postl, B. Babich, and H. Schmid”. Articles and Chapters in Academic Book Collections. Paper 3. http://fordham.bepress.com/phil_babich/3
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
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1883) Thus Spake [sig.] Zarathustra. Translated by Thomas Common. With an Introduction by Mrs Forster-Nietzsche. Kindle edition. Project Guttenberg Europe.
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.


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Nietzsche (1844-1900): a Mini Biography

Friedrich Nietzsche was born in Röcken bei Lützen, South of Leipzig, Prussia (Germany), in October 15 1844. Since his father was a Protestant minister, the family lived in the house provided by the church. At age five, Nietzsche’s father (Karl Ludwig) died from a brain ailment and with his mother (Franziska), and his younger sister (Therese Elizabeth Alexandra) he went to live with the paternal grandmother and two great-aunts. It has been suggested that the lack of male role models in Nietzsche’s life had an effect on his personality, somewhat different from that of other boys.

Between the ages of 14 and 19, Nietzsche attended Schulpforta, a highly rated boarding school in Naumburg, the same school attended by the German Idealist philosopher Johan Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814). During this period, Nietzsche met his lifetime friend Paul Dessen (1845-1919) who later became an Orientalist and historian of philosophy. Nietzsche was a music lover who even contemplated a career in music. Through a magazine called the Zeitschrift für Musik, which one of his school’s club subscribed, Nietzsche became acquainted with the music of Richard Wagner.

In 1864, after graduating from Schulpforta, Nietzsche enrolled at the University of Bonn to study theology and philology, which at the time were taught for their connections with the classical texts and the Bible. Of these two, it was in philology that Nietzsche had the greatest interest, something that was going to have an indelible effect in his future writings. Nietzsche immersed in philosophy at age twenty one, when he discovered the book The World as Will and Idea by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). From then on he continued to read Schopenhauer and to rethink his arguments. While Schopenhauer sought ways in the aesthetics of art to raise the human condition, Nietzsche took those further by stating that it is man’s responsibility to give meaning to life. Another book that left a mark on Nietzsche was F A Lange’s History of Materialism and Critique of its Present Significance (1866). The essays that Nietzsche wrote while an undergraduate singled him out by the maturity of his thought.

After graduating from the University of Bonn, Nietzsche enrolled himself at the University of Leipzig as a post-graduate student in philology, supervised by Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl. However, soon afterwards he had to take a break from academic life to comply with the military conscription. He worked as a hospital attendant during the Franco-Prussian War and returned to the University of Leipzig after he was discharged. In November of 1868, Nietzsche met the composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883) at the home of Hermann Brockhaus (1806–1877), an Orientalist who was married to Wagner’s sister, Ottilie. In the following Christmas of 1869 Nietzsche was invited to spend Christmas at the home of Wagner and his wife Cosima, daughter of the composer Franz Liszt, in Bayreuth, Central Germany.

Although Nietzsche had not yet completed his doctorate, with good recommendations from his supervisor Ritschl and others, in December 1868 he was appointed Assistant Professor of Classic Philology at the University of Basel, Switzerland. In March 1869, however, the University of Leipzig issued him the rank of doctor, without examination, based on his publications in the journal of the Rheinisches Museum. After moving to Switzerland, Nietzsche renounced his Prussian citizenship, due to a sense of duty to the university that hired him, but since he never met the criteria for Swiss citizenship, he became stateless.

During the time he was a professor in Basel, between 1872 and 1879, Nietzsche maintained his friendship with Wagner and visited the composer several times. Nietzsche’s first book – The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872)–, as well as ideas spread about in other books and essays, attest the impression that Wagner made on Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy was trashed by the philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff (1848-1931), also a former student of Schulpforta. To Wilamowitz-Möllendorff only ignorance, lack of love for truth or naivety could explain Nietzsche’s claims that with the use of Greek tragedy he embodied Dionysius and solved the riddle of the orchestra. When weighting out this bad review it is important to recall the ongoing academic dispute between Nietzsche’s supervisor, Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl (1806-1876), and Otto Jahn (1813-1869), in which Wilamowitz-Möllendorff sided with Jahn, who was a friend of his best friend Hermann Sauppe.

In January 1879 Nietzsche had his first nervous breakdown, from which he never quite recovered. His health continued to deteriorate and in June of the same year he resigned from the university of Basel, after a career that lasted only ten years. Afterwards Nietzsche had just under ten years of productive life left. He lived in a series of places in Switzerland as well as in Venice, Genoa, Nice and Trim. However, the visible signs of his madness such as his unkempt appearance and delusional outbursts began to be noticed in the Summer of 1888. Nietzsche’s last breakdown occurred in Turin, on 3rd January 1889 when he collapsed and succumbed to madness. The alleged cause of this breakdown was his witnessing of a cabman flogging viciously a stubborn horse, to which Nietzsche reacted by throwing himself to embrace the horse’s neck in order to prevent any further flogging. Nietzsche received constant care from his mother until her death and thereafter he was cared on and off by his sister Elizabeth. On August 25, 1900, just before completing his 56th birthday, Nietzsche died, of pneumonia and a stroke.

Jo Pires-O’Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, a cultural internet magazine dedicated to Spanish and Portuguese speakers: http://www.portvitoria.com/

Check out PortVitoria, a biannual digital magazine of current affairs, culture and politics centered on the Iberian culture and its diaspora.

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