Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche hands folded against a railing looking out over a valley.
“Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche” (1906) by Edvard Munch was painted six years after Nietzsche’s death.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was a German philosopher and social critic of the late 19th century. He was born about 15 years after the last part of Goethe’s Faust was published and Goethe had died. He admired Goethe and was familiar with Faust, drawing from both for his idea of the Übermensch.

Nietzsche was brilliant and prodigious, but suffered mental problems and died at 44 in a mental asylum. He was a great writer and is especially admired for his ability to write short pithy aphorisms like “God is dead” that we all remember. He is dangerous because he’s controversial, convincing, confusing and easy to cherry-pick meaning off of, particularly by unpleasant people looking for justification for their crimes and sociopathy. When he died, the editing and publishing of his works was managed by his sister, a German nationalist, and the Nazis drew from her despite evidence that Nietzsche was neither an anti-semite nor a nationalist.

From Faust’s time to today, society has been undergoing constant change, as if to a particular goal; a better place. We call it progress. Nietzsche didn’t think the past inherently led to a better future, but that a next step was necessary and that many of the old ways had to be replaced.

He was disturbed by what he saw people in society becoming as they grew more skeptical about God and more worshipful of reason and materialism. He didn’t like science claiming to be the arbiter of truth. He thought existing state and religious institutions made people too similar as well as more submissive and less creative, when what was needed were free-thinking, creative individuals with the will, wisdom and intelligence needed to enter a new post-Christian era.

Will to Power

Europe had to be emancipated from the past and be renewed. He was interested in revitalizing culture and society, not economics, but he didn’t neglect power in life and physics. The will to power, he called it: this “world is the will to power—and nothing besides!”1 though exactly what he meant by that is debated. It is an aspect of force.

“…do you want a name for this world? A solution for all its riddles? A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men?— This world is the will to power–and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power–and nothing besides!”

Friedrich Nietzsche The Will To Power.

He believed that the Christian era was ending and thought about what would replace it. He was critical of Christianity, calling it a “slave religion.”

Slave Religion

A slave religion soothes an oppressed person’s needs with comfort and assurance and love. It even offers vengeance. Christianity says, if you are a slave today, it is God’s will and his plan. Have faith: you’ll see. Live simply, be charitable and forgiving. Love your God and obey his laws. The world is about to end. Death is true life. Tomorrow in heaven, judgment will be made and you will be saved while your oppressor perishes in a lake of fire.

Jesus instructs you to render unto your master what he wants, in fact to increase it,2 and to be indifferent to wealth and power. Nietzsche thought that the slave mindset was the death of culture.

He wrote that Christianity puts more value on life after death than it does on life on Earth. Borrowing the ancient concept of an immortal soul, Christianity offers an afterlife that surpasses life on Earth and regards the material world–the Earth–as a distraction from God, treating life as stained by evil and as a lure of the devil into damnation. It is anti-life in its attention to the after-life.

Slave Morality

From a slave religion comes a slave morality. Meekness, compassion, and “the long etcetera of little virtues” were characteristics of weakness and servility which inhibit power.3

For the post-Christian non-victims there had to be a more suitable religion; a more appropriate life-affirming set of morals and ethics and consequences for those who had gone beyond victimhood and life-denying. Nietzsche said celebrate life, make love of the earth the basis for your morality.

God is Dead.

“God is dead, ” Nietzsche said, because we killed him from neglect, disinterest, convenience or necessity. He was irrelevant to our material growth and progress, even an obstacle. Nietzsche didn’t kill God, he was just commenting on what was obvious. He also pointed out that the abandonment of God freed people from God-given laws and morality.

We killed him, and now we had no foundation for morality and ethics and meaning and values and purpose. Divine laws are absolute and inexplicable. The law explains what are sins and how one should atone for those sins. Everyone knows what is proper. Without unassailable rules, there are none that can’t be whittled away, abused and ignored and no way to make things right again. Morality cannot be justified. If God was dead, so were the laws and the corrections.

Nietzsche didn’t like where that was going, though he was happy to be rid of Christianity. The old ways and institutions were obsolete, but so were we. He suggested humans needed to find another source of values, but also that we could be replaced by those who had more self-control and capacity, the Übermensch.

“And verily, ye good and just! In you there is much to be laughed at, and especially your fear of what hath hitherto been called “the devil!”
So alien are ye in your souls to what is great, that to you the Superman would be FRIGHTFUL in his goodness!
And ye wise and knowing ones, ye would flee from the solar-glow of the wisdom in which the Superman joyfully batheth his nakedness!
Ye highest men who have come within my ken! this is my doubt of you, and my secret laughter: I suspect ye would call my Superman—a devil!”

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Thus Spake Zarathustra, by Friedrich Nietzsche.

The Übermensch

God is dead. How unfortunate, since there are still slaves needing solace and inspiration, 99% of humanity by some estimates.”The rich get richer and the poor get poorer” is an aphorism which comes from Percy Bysshe Shelley (whose missus Mary wrote ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’, a Faustian tale). Pity and compassion do not hold back the Übermenschen. Their pragmatic concept of survival of the fittest evokes the tooth and claw, or in Faust’s case, the fist, but their moral foundation is different because they are not slaves. Ever the optimist, Nietzsche thought that their morality would be based in a love of life, of the earth.

Eternal Recurrence

“When, to the Moment then, I say:
‘Ah, stay a while! You are so lovely!’
Then you can grasp me: then you may,
Then, to my ruin, I’ll go gladly!
Then they can ring the passing bell,
Then from your service you are free,
The clocks may halt, the hands be still,
And time be past and done, for me!”

Faust: A Tragedy, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

“All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if you ever wanted one thing twice, if you ever said, ‘You please me, happiness! Abide, moment!’ then you wanted all back … For all joy wants—eternity.”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Kaufmann, Walter, ed. (1954). The Portable Nietzsche. The Viking Press. p. 435.)

In Goethe’s Faust, Faust agrees that Mephistopheles can take him the moment Faust is content with life so much that he wishes for the moment of bliss to last. Nietzsche said, imagine that life repeated endlessly. Can the thought of having to relive your life over and over for eternity make you happy? It would be quite an achievement to be able accept that everything that had led up to that moment was worthwhile. The ability to say “yes!” to life is a high achievement.

Faust doubted that Mephistopheles could deceive him with flattery and luxury and was ultimately only satisfied with his own efforts and achievements. Faust made a wager, but the Devil didn’t get him because:

Whoever strives, in his endeavour,
We can rescue from the devil.
And if he has Love within,
Granted from above,
The sacred crowd will meet him,
With welcome, and with love.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Faust Part II. Act V.
  1. Nietzsche, The Will To Power, §1067 []
  2. []
  3. From are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. []