Nietzsche (1844-1900)is often called the first modern thinker. In fact, depending on whether you say we live in modern or post-modern times, he is called the first modern OR post-modern thinker. He is without doubt one of the most influential philosophers of modern Europe, and most skeptical thought is now deeply in his debt.
Nietzsche came from a long line of protestant Lutheran preachers. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s father died when he was very little, and though his family sent the boy to school to become a preacher and theologian (like Hegel, Heidegger and many other German thinkers) Nietzsche rebelled and turned to philosophy.
German Pessimism and Schopenhauer:
Just before Nietzsche’s birth, Germany had been going through a great period of pessimism. Just like in China, Egypt, Greece and everywhere, human thought flourishes in the period after tragedy and warring states because people are forced to turn against old conceptions and institutions and ask hard questions that become very popular in these sorts of times.
German princes came together to crush the popular people’s movements for individual rights, and there was a great turning away from the German reason of Kant towards the German will of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Since reason failed in the world, the world is not a reasonable place but a tough place in which it is hard to push for what one sees as beautiful and true.
Marx wrote in this time, for this crowd.
Schopenhauer is deeply influenced by Buddhism and Indian thought, in a very pessimistic way.
He uses the image of a ship bobbing on the water, just hanging on in a watery, stormy ocean of a world. Rather than believe in a reason beyond, having the stomach to see the harsh reality of the situation became a value, a value that skeptical thought has retained.
German pessimism, including its famous thinkers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, flourished in two more recent periods of pessimism: WWI for Europe and Vietnam for America. In fact, Nietzsche was the original guy who said ‘my home country is stupid and think they are awesome’, bashing Germany and all things German quite openly, for which he has been honored as not only individualistic but incredibly courageous. Thus European thought following WWI and American culture following the 60’s (Berkeley a key player in this) found deep meaning in calling their society and ‘the system’ a bunch of chumps.
Nietzsche’s first book was The Birth of Tragedy, in which he argued that the Greeks were not simply rationalists as was often said. He argued that there were two opposite strains in Greek society, the Apollonian (order, reason and law) and the Dionysian (chaos, emotion and revolt). Nietzsche suggests that this is quite human, and societies that develop do not simply become reasonable but struggle to both restrain and escape. This is very similar to Hegel’s dialectic of reason and understanding.
Nietzsche vs. Morality:
The text I gave you to read is ‘Beyond Good and Evil’, in which Nietzsche asks us to look at humanity critically and see that following the rules (like Kant) or ‘the greater good’ (like Mill) is for sheep. The individual rises above the masses and sees things in a new way. Nietzsche came up with these ideas reading Kant and Mill, reacting against their overall goods for everyone evenly. For Nietzsche, inequality are the beautiful mountain ranges to climb and conquer.
Nietzsche was a staunch individualist, believing that ANY group morality is a slave morality, and he called Christianity, Scientific ‘Objectivity’, German Nationalism and German Racism (very much centered in Anti-Semitism) out on this vocally. Again, he is seen as a hero by many for this. Consider: “When we create the master race, we will have to mix in a lot of Jews to get their good qualities”, a joke considering that Nietzsche would never advise creating a master race of equals but rather loves the individual who stands above the race as a herd.
It was a shame that Nietzsche was censored and used by the Nazis to support their ideas of the beautiful rising German will of the master race, taking Nietzsche’s individualism and twisting it into a racial and social doctrine. Nietzsche intended his words for individualists, as he says over and over again. In this, they famously used his concept of the Superman (and yes, Nietzsche is the first person on record to use this phrase, the UBERMENCH) to mean not the artist or visionary who creates but the German race.
Nietzsche vs. Nihilism:
While many would say ‘Nietzsche believes in nothing, then”, this would not be true. Nietzsche was just as vocal about believing in something as he was about not believing the herd mentality. Nietzsche saw himself as a new sort of thinker who would be followed and imitated by many. Because of this, he warns over and over again NOT to make his thought into a school or a system. However, he did not believe like Schopenhauer that one could believe or not and it makes little difference. Nietzsche believed that the whole worth of the individual is that, in the face of nothing being absolutely true, staring into the void of being, you create something and stand for something in a beautiful way, creating your own meaning in life. He was very critical of ‘Nihilism’, believing in nothing, thought this is just what his critics, religious and not, have called him.
Nietzsche believes in Heraclitus and Hegel’s Becoming between Being and Nothing. He avoids believing in eternal positives, but also believing in nothing whatsoever. It is the overturning of the old into the new by the true individual who wills something created beyond themselves and the world that stands in the face of Nihilism that Nietzsche sees as modernity’s greatest threat. He sees a world where everyone sits on their couch, believes in nothing but is afraid to contradict the state or church and do SOMETHING other than sit there.
Thus, Nietzsche relentlessly bashes reason and judgment in himself and in others, but he believes that you must have the courage to create as a contradictory and mortal being.
Nietzsche’s bashing of women: An Interesting Example of Nietzsche’s Skeptical Individualism
One of the most beautiful and deep parts of Nietzsche’s writings is his turn in Human, All Too Human from bashing Kant and others for believing in objective truth to say ‘here are some of my truths’ and without warning start bashing women repeatedly including the famous “When you go to woman, do not forget your whip”. The beauty of this philosophical performance, what inspires Bataille and Derrida, is that Nietzsche here is showing you both sides of himself at once. Unlike Kant or Mill who are writing like they can be consistent and not contradict themselves in the building or seeing of the truth, Nietzsche knows the truth is psychological and complex, and that beauty comes from tension and pain. Thus, even in his bashing he knows he is a human being and flawed. This has had an amazing impact on Art and Literature (particularly since Bataille and his open obscenity in following Nietzsche).
Passages of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil:
N starts off with asking, why do we want or suppose we can simply get truth? Philosophy seems like it has barely even gotten started. Asking this question is perhaps the greatest risk: nihilism can result from q of ‘truth’.
Read BGE (2)
Faith in opposite values: categorical Ts and Fs, such that we can fully know.
Notice ‘frog perspective’, maybe same as frog in well of CT.
Read (3), selection. Instinct to simplify things in ‘truth’ but complex
Read (4), ending. “philosophy beyond good & evil”, this is first time title in the book.
Read (5) start and selection. Philosophers as naïve, trusting so far, critique of Kant. Why?
Read (6), middle. Naïve, because ALL DRIVES can pose as ‘truth’ or ‘good’.
Read (16) start: Notice beyond even Schopenhauer here. Thinking conceals itself such that we cannot be simply certain of it any way. (Notice lead to Freud here)
In 17, speaks more of the deceptive power of language to simplify things for us and shape our world. He mentions resemblance of Indian, Greek and German philosophy, says it is clearly explained by language- fits with growing German- our picture.
Why is language deceptive? How does grammar lie? Read (24), start and end.
Language, and science, have to simplify the world by making strict oppositions out of what is actually subtleties of gradation. Language, philosophy and science make things black and white, but things are actually shades of grey between ideals and extremes.
Nietzsche says that truth is alive, and doesn’t need such simple and artificial scaffolding as our beliefs or our knowing we are right. We should enjoy being wrong.
Read (25) start: Truth needs no protectors- or categorical certainties.
Says falsehood is the surest fact, continually in all truth and discovery.
Read (34), middle to end. Philosophers need to suspect the certainties they have taken for granted, and grammar plays a serious part in the simplifying deception, he says even poison against life. (Note: Hegel’s judgment is the one sided acid).
Also Great: (78), (94) (126)
Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
This is one of the most famous of Nietzsche’s books. The opening passages are quite famous and are quoted often. The prose is intentionally mocking the Bible, Plato and other classics.
Nietzsche believed that the Persian prophet Zarathustra, one of the first monotheists, was also the first dualist to separate good from evil, so Nietzsche has Zarathustra become the first to go ‘beyond’ good and evil, to recognize the error of his dualism, and see the interdependence and totality of the whole. Zarathustra starts in his cave, then ‘goes down’, a theme that recurs.
Zarathustra first encounters after going down out of cave a forest dweller (very Indian), who is avoiding people and loving god as people are too imperfect. This sage in the woods is what Zarathustra has overcome. He gets to town, and addresses the people, who have gathered to watch a tightrope walker. Note that the superman is one who the people watch and love, who straddles an abyss and creates and dances like the tightrope walker, but the tightrope walker is a mere spectacle and the people are not supposed to do the same.
Read (3) start, several sections going through (4).
Operation Margarine by Roland Barthes
This short piece by the French literary critic and philosopher is an excellent afterward to Nietzsche, as it shows us the way that conformity and values are sold and packaged today.