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Friedrich Wilhelm NietzscheFriedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

German philosopher and artist who deconstructed morality and celebrated the Romantic myth as an expression of life.

"Nihilism stands at the door: whence comes this uncanniest of all guests?" In 1901, this question appeared in the first chapter of a posthumously published philosophical work called The Will To Power. The author of the book was Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, a German philosopher and artist, renowned for his fiery outbursts on Christianity, moral conventions and contemporary modern society. Alienated from the outside world and in deep mental breakdown, Nietzsche left the world with an astounding legacy that would continue to question and criticize established norms and principles long after his death. Who was he, this lonely man who hid his face behind a giant moustache, writing mystical aphorisms that declared the death of God?


Friedrich Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844, in a small German town called Röcken bei Lützen, located southwest of Leipzig. His father died when he was only four years old, which left him in the hands of his mother, Franziska, his paternal grandmother, Erdmuthe, his father's two sisters, Auguste and Rosalie, and his younger sister, Therese Elisabeth Alexandra. From the beginning, Nietzsche's life was already taking a decisive form. Early on he became acquainted with the music of Richard Wagner, whose charismatic art and personality attracted his attention. This eventually led to a close friendship between the two, who both shared a passion and enthusiasm for the philosophical works of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Being a successful student in philology and somewhat of an academic star, thanks to his essays on Aristotle, Theognis and Simonides, Nietzsche was suddenly called in to enter the military service at age 23. During this time he was struck by a serious chest injury, which forced him to immediately suspend his military training. Five years later, Nietzsche released his first book, entitled The Birth of Tragedy (1872), which examined the Greek culture and the metaphysics behind art, drawing a heavy inspiration from Schopenhauer and also Wagner, whose work he praised immensely.

Nietzsche continued visiting Wagner regularly at his home in Bayreuth, until Human, All-Too-Human (1878) was published. This work marked the end of their ten-year friendship, in which Wagner came under attack as the thinly-disguised "artist." At around this time, Nietzsche's life changed completely. He became the Nietzsche we commonly think of today: the lonely wanderer who had given up his German citizenship, travelling around Europe with no stable home of residence. In 1882 he visited Rome, where he met the Russian woman named Lou Salomé. Nietzsche fell in love with her and requested her hand in marriage, but she declined. Their friendship was never to be the same again, and one can imagine that Nietzsche was never to fully recover from this, either.

The following years became a particularly productive period for Nietzsche, with the publication of works such as The Gay Science (1882), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), Twilight of the Idols (1888), and The Antichrist (1888). Shortly after The Antichrist was published, Nietzsche suddenly fell into a mental breakdown, often described as a scene where he witnessed a horse being whipped, clung his arms around the animal's neck, and then collapsed. For a long time his madness was believed to have been the result of a syphilitic infection, but recent studies have showed that the culprit was actually brain cancer, which Nietzsche appears to have inherited from his father.

Nietzsche spent his last days on an estate known as the "Villa Silberblick," rented by his sister Elisabeth, who had married a German anti-Semite named Bernhard Förster. On August 25, 1900, Friedrich Nietzsche passed away in what is presumed to have been pneumonia in combination with a stroke. His body was placed in the family gravesite together with his mother and sister, by the church in Röcken bei Lützen. Villa Silberblick became the "Nietzsche Archives," containing his personal manuscripts, but to the rest of the world, Nietzsche was already archived in the history of mankind as the man who changed the face of German philosophy forever.


Nietzsche was very much drawn to culture and art, especially music, from early in his life. Being a great admirer of Wagner and Strauss, Nietzsche naturally became a defender of the Romanticist art movement, which emphasized subjective emotional experience and aesthetics over rational analysis and scientific explanation.. The glory of adventure and lawless forests were common subjects in the Romanticist movement, contrasting its religious idealism against the rational humanism of the past Enlightment age. Under heavy influence from Schopenhauer's "The World as Will and Representation," Nietzsche developed a unique relationship to art, one that gradually began to define his own philosophy of life and also pointed straight to the core of metaphysics.

The Tragic Myth

In The Birth of Tragedy from 1872, Nietzsche studied the Ancient Greek culture, specifically the Greek Tragedy. He posed the question of why the Greeks developed such an art form. Why did a people whose cultural life otherwise seemed so life-affirming and bright suddenly begin writing complex dramas where the lonely individual took the wrong step in life, abruptly finding themselves at the mercy of the gods?

For Nietzsche, who is already beginning to reveal the foundation of his philosophy, there is a truth about life to be found in tragedy. True art, he says, must reflect life and thus be amoral, because life in its very core is not moral, but rather, organic. And as organic life has no moral guidance but only primal natural laws, Ancient Greek tragedy through which it both creates and destroys lesser life such as human beings and animals, it must be regarded as "anti-life" to morally condemn natural things such as death, pain or tragedy. Herein lies the foundation to what Nietzsche sees as brilliant in the Greek tragic myth: it celebrates life unconditionally and captures its essence of existence without flinching or defending itself with ethical principles. It's a clear expression of life itself.

But for Nietzsche, this conclusion is only the platform. For tragedies to be made, man must invent myths. The Greek religious life was filled with hundreds upon hundreds of gods, goddesses and mystic tales from which the Greeks drew inspiration for their art. This realization becomes the central idea that Nietzsche wants to make about art: without a strong and rich life of myths and magic tales, the culture slowly decays from within due to lack of nourishment.

Art is not created from moral or rational principles, but from the depth of the soul of a people. The myth is the expression of that unique soul, but as soon we try to "objectify" or rationally explain its relevance, we slowly kill our cultural life and replace it with a clinic, materialist worldview. This worldview is the modern one, where we have literally killed the belief in religion, passion, magic and myth, because we no longer understand their function. We search for "objective" answers to the myth itself and unsurprisingly we find none, because the truth about life, according to Nietzsche, does not lie in the myth itself, but in its metaphorical expression of life. We cannot discover Zeus up on Mount Olympus, nor will we ever find the Cyclops that almost killed Odysseus, because these are simply metaphors to communicate something about our existence that cannot be adequately explained otherwise.

Nietzsche sees a corrolation between myth and perception of reality. We cannot gain direct access to any objective truth, the "thing in itself"; instead, we interpret it through subjective symbolism, just like we perceive life through the metaphor in art. In his groundbreaking work called On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, he writes:

The various languages placed side by side show that with words it is never a question of truth, never a question of adequate expression; otherwise, there would not be so many languages. The "thing in itself" (which is precisely what the pure truth, apart from any of its consequences, would be) is likewise something quite incomprehensible to the creator of language and something not in the least worth striving for. This creator only designates the relations of things to men, and for expressing these relations he lays hold of the boldest metaphors.

This conclusion is the beginning to an aesthetic manifesto, upholding the subjective experience as more worthwhile than the search for objective truth - a truth that Nietzsche says we cannot possibly gain access to anyway. The only way for us to live in harmony is to accept the limitations of our human conditions and find truth in the metaphor of art. As he famously proclaims in The Birth of Tragedy: "the existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon."

Art as Will and Representation

When we've come this far, we ask ourselves the following question: what is art then? What is the metaphysical essence of art? Drawing ideas directly from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche introduces what would come to be one of the world's most famous metaphors about the interpretation of art. But to understand this metaphor, we must first become acquainted with the Schopenhauerian philosophy of the Will. According to Schopenhauer, our world consists out of two basic elements: the Will and the representation. The Will is an objective force, which we commonly are only able to perceive via representations. Think of the Will as the instinct of a tiger. You cannot see, hear nor feel it, but you know it's real, because it's what drives and motivates the tiger to attack its prey and kill it. The representation of that Will could be said to be the tiger as we know it, with fur, claws and bloody teeth.

Art, similar to our senses in that it's a medium through which we perceive the world, is divided into different art forms: primarily, music and poetry. Music, Schopenhauer claims, is the only art form that is able to fully express the objective Will. We understand this in the form of what many often call "absolute music," a term that means the music isn't trying to depict an inner visual scenery or "soundscape" as some call it, but is completely abstract in its essence. An example of this is the Fifth Symphony by Beethoven. Arthur Schopenhauer When we listen to it, there is no clear visual agenda or program behind it, only a total expression of Beethoven's emotions, passions and experiences. The Fifth Symphony could therefore be said to capture aspects of the objective Will of Beethoven. Thus, concludes Schopenhauer, music is a unique art form in that it is able to express a complete objectification of the Will.

This is the basic metaphysical discussion that Nietzsche uses to develop his theory about the essence of art. Music is the expression of the objective Will that Schopenhauer talks about, but what about poetry? We mentioned earlier how this Will is commonly perceived by us in the form of representation. Poetry, Nietzsche says, is a different art form from music, because it cannot express the objective Will, only the representation of it. For example, when we read a poem, we translate the sentences into visual experiences. We cannot experience a poem the same way we experience a symphony, because the former relies completely on our inner visualization, while the latter is perceived by our senses in a more direct and abstract form. Herein lies the difference.

Music lets us gain direct access to the Will, while poetry requires an extra level of medium, namely the representation. If we could explain this in visual terms, it would look something like this:

Music => Will => Perceiver

Poetry => Will => Representation => Perceiver

The difference between the poetic and musical art form is thus a metaphysical one: music has the ability to capture the Will itself because it speaks directly to our senses, while poetry is dependant on us imagining the Will, re-creating it visually. To shed some more light on this difference, Nietzsche mentions the German poet Friedrich Schiller, who explains the creation process behind his poetry. First he finds an inner musical rhythm and then he writes down a visualized expression of that music. In other words, poetry is not just a visualization of an experience, but carries an inner musical melody underneath it. When reading a poem, we follow the inner rhythm of each verse; hence one could say we're actually reading music!

But even if poetry has some obvious musical aspects to it, it is still dependant upon the visualization process, which is why it cannot express an objectification of the Will like music can. Some people will here note that not all music is "absolute music," that is, certain music actually depict something strongly visually, often in the form of different themes of programs. This is true and Nietzsche deals with this by taking Beethoven's sixth as an example. This symphony was composed with a clear program for each piece and thus can be said to not be completely abstract in its nature.

So is also the case with what we commonly refer to as "program music," but the point to make here is that music doesn't rely on this visualization process. We can for instance visualize certain parts in Beethoven's "absolute" fifth, and thereby add the extra level of medium found within poetry - the interpretation of the Will - but it is a level of medium that we as perceivers add to the experience, not a medium inherent to the nature of music itself. Music can therefore contain visual or programmatic elements, but does not necessarily have to. This conclusion leads Nietzsche to uphold music as the highest form of art - the only art form that is possible of penetrating deepest into the core of our organic existence.

Dionysus and Apollo

Now that we've explained Nietzsche's conception of art, we are also able to fully comprehend his world famous metaphor: Dionysus and Apollo. Dionysus was the Greek God of pleasure and turbulence, representing the wild and uncontrollable forces in man. He was sometimes depicted together with a cult of male and female followers, known as Satyrs and Maenads. His exact opposite was Apollo, who stood for rationality, reason, order, and serenity. Nietzsche uses these two elements and applies them to both the Greek tragedy and the Greek myth, but most interestingly, he applies them to art itself.

Dionysus Apollo, he says, represents the poetic art form, by its dreamy aspect of visualization. Dionysus, on the other hand, can be equated to the musical art form, through its wild and uncontrollable means of expression. Apollo captures truth via his prophetic dreams, but underneath his solemn character lays Dionysus, whose celebration of tragedy and chaos is able to communicate with the core of existence. Interestingly, Nietzsche thus concludes the contrast between these two forces, but explains that they do not make up a dichotomy.

Instead they are complimentary forces, closely and inevitably intertwined with one another to establish a form of balance. Applying these two elements to art, the picture of Nietzsche's vision of the essence of art is now beginning to take form: poetry is the art form of the dreamy Apollo, but based on the underlying forces of the musical Dionysus. Music is the art form of the ecstatic Dionysus, but may contain elements of the poetic Apollo. What these art forms have in common though, is that Dionysus is the underlying force to both.

Art and Life

To summarize, Nietzsche celebrates music as the highest form of art - the only art form that is able to capture the essence of life, or as Schopenhauer would call it, the Will. He upholds the Greek tragedy for its capacity to poetically communicate higher truths about our existence, and therefore defends the myth as the origin to this artistic experience. Myth, not science or reason, is ultimately able to make life, art and culture meaningful. In Wagner's music, Nietzsche sees a heroic rebirth of the German myths, and thus, the soul of the German folk.

However, the value of art to Nietzsche does not lie here, but in the metaphysics of our existence. As Schopenhauer explains, we cannot interpret reality objectively, because we perceive it in the form of metaphors, or interpretations. Therefore science cannot claim to hold the answers to all of life's mysteries. It can only decode and explain the "shell" of our existence, not its inner core. Only music is able to penetrate deeper and express the objective Will, which lead both Nietzsche and Schopenhauer to conclude the same thing: the only true means of transcendence is through the virtues and passions of art.


Nietzsche's relation to religion was problematic. His belief in the complete and uncompromising individuality that previously had been defended by German romanticists such as Heinrich von Kleist led him to viciously attack the inherent dogmatic qualities of religious practice and formation. At the same time he drew notable influence from Germanic mythology and spiritual values, in which he saw a radical contrast to modern Judeo-Christian beliefs. In his famous work Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes:

The noble man honours in himself the powerful one, him also who has power over himself, who knows how to speak and how to keep silence, who takes pleasure in subjecting himself to severity and hardness, and has reverence for all that is severe and hard. "Wotan placed a hard heart in my breast," says an old Scandinavian Saga: it is thus rightly expressed from the soul of a proud Viking. (Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter IX, §260)

But most importantly, religion symbolized to Nietzsche the creation of static, moral laws, upholding virtues that seemed to draw away from life and demonize it, instead of celebrating it with joy and passion. He systematically examined the inherent psychological motives behind the creation of morality and concluded that it seemed to be a way for people to establish a parallel world in which the uncomfortable sides to reality, such as death, pain, inequality, and struggle, were banned and declared morally "wrong." This led Nietzsche on a warrior's path, in turn condemning those who tried to condemn life, to end with the controversial news to the modern world: "God is dead!"

Master and Slave

In his classic work called On the Genealogy of Morals , Nietzsche outlines the historical origin of different forms of morality. He begins by examining dualistic morality, the belief that there are good and evil forces in constant conflict with each other, and that a preference for "good" represents a correct moral stance. According to Nietzsche, the ruling castes in ancient civilizations held a form of dual preference for what they considered to be "good" and "evil." However, these were not moral laws per se, but values that coincided with their relationship to lower castes such as slaves.

The Russian Revolution was a slave revolt For the aristocrats, power, well-being, might, and heroism were considered to be naturally good, whereas the characteristics of lower castes such as meekness, sickness, weakness and fear represented the natural evil. Slowly, the lower castes began to resent the higher castes for being in a position they envied, which eventually led to a slave revolt against their ruling masters. Examples of this can be traced back throughout the entire history of the world, with recent memorable moments including the French and Russian revolutions.

What happened during this revolt, Nietzsche explains, is that a moral inversion in values took place between the aristocrats and the slaves. What was previously seen as good according to the ruling castes now became the ultimate evil as defined by the slaves. He classifies these two value systems as master and slave morality, to point out both the historical and the moral contrast. While this has happened in more or less all cultures at different points in history, Nietzsche focuses on the people whom he regards as the origin of this inversion of moral values:

The Jews--a people "born for slavery," as Tacitus and the whole ancient world say of them; "the chosen people among the nations," as they themselves say and believe--the Jews performed the miracle of the inversion of valuations, by means of which life on earth obtained a new and dangerous charm for a couple of millenniums. Their prophets fused into one the expressions "rich," "godless," "wicked," "violent," "sensual," and for the first time coined the word "world" as a term of reproach. In this inversion of valuations (in which is also included the use of the word "poor" as synonymous with "saint" and "friend") the significance of the Jewish people is to be found; it is with THEM that the SLAVE-INSURRECTION IN MORALS commences. (Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter V, §195)

Nietzsche doesn't draw any ethnic conclusions about this historical fact, and thereby separates the Jews as a people from their religion, Judaism, which he attacks in the modern form of Christianity. For it is in the form of Christianity that the inverted Judaic values are spread to Europe, declaring the new message: "The meek shall inherit the Earth!"

The Psychology of Slave Morality

The effects of the new wave of slave morality become apparent in the psychological mechanisms behind its Christian followers. Nietzsche explains the evident conflict that now appears between the new moral system and natural reality. Christianity glorifies everything that is being weak and under-confident, but this only affirms the position of the slave. In order to feel superior over their previous masters, the slaves now have to find a way of achieving power, passively. They invent the notion of pity.

Natural reality is a fight against death, contrary to the life-denial of the slave morality Nietzsche examines pity and pitiful thinking from a psychological perspective: the individual, who is weak, naturally cannot beat his master - unless he invents the theory that the master actually is the weak party. The slave therefore claims to pity his master, because he's not devoted to the value system of slave morality, which says that only meek people with meek impulses are rewarded. Thus he creates the illusion of being in a superior position to his master, while at the same time feeling good about it. And the only way for the master to be loyal to the God of the slaves that supposedly enforces this system is to accept his inferiority and join hands with the slaves in equality.

How could the masters give in to all of this? Nietzsche has several explanations to why things escalated as they did. The flaws and inherent weaknesses of the human individual are vulnerable to psychological manipulation. For instance, when we do something that we inherently think is wrong, such as killing a person, we feel bad about it. It is our human conscience that is speaking, informing us of a conflict between our actions and our moral viewpoints. This means that what we commonly refer to as having a "bad conscience," really is a moral perception of an event and not something objective or absolute. In other words: if you establish a new moral perception of what is "right" and "wrong," you can actually manipulate people around you into feeling bad about things defined as morally incorrect.

Crime and Punishment

Nietzsche studies the psychological phenomenon behind bad conscience and traces it back to the time in history when man lost contact with his natural instincts to hunt and conquer. When this primitive lifestyle suddenly became morally demonized, man turned against himself and thus invented bad conscience. Nietzsche also examines the origins of crime and punishment, linking it to the time when people started to form social relations based upon promise and trust. An example is a master lending out money to his worker: the only guarantee the master has that he will ever see his money again is based upon human trust.

Of course, not all of these promises were kept and eventually the master had to invent a counter-promise: if the worker cannot keep his promise, the master has a right to inflict harm upon him - and so the notion of punishment was created. Nietzsche remains critical to all of these moral systems that he sees as phenomenons originating from pre-moral situations. He raises a series of thought-worthy questions: can the master really be paid back on a broken promise by means of punishment? Can the loss of one individual be equally measured to that of another?

Again we see a pattern emerge: once we establish moral laws that don't coincide with our natural human behaviour, we suddenly feel bad about being ourselves. The slave believes this is his way out of being oppressed by his master, but as Nietzsche reveals, all of humanity suffers from the inversion of the master morality, the hierarchical laws of nature.

The three Judeo-Christian belief systems (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) made enormous victories worldwide, conquering culture after culture. To Nietzsche, this was a disease of monumental proportions. He saw a group of slaves fooling their masters into obeying a God that proclaimed a moral system not in accordance with natural laws. Reality is built upon natural selection, which says that only he who is most fit in accordance with his natural environment will survive. The wave of Christian revolution across Europe could therefore not last forever. Nietzsche knew this and believed that he lived in an age that could come to put a stop to the religion of slave revolt.

The Death of God

"Whither is God?" he cried. "I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I! All of us are his murderers! But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? And backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition?—Gods, too, decompose! God is dead! (The Gay Science, Book III, §125)

This is the frank but controversial message that the madman in The Gay Science brings to his fellow citizens of the modern world. God is dead because we have killed him. How? To understand this, one must sink into the very core of Christianity, like Nietzsche did. According to Christian belief, the earthly life is a horrible place filled with death, pain, inequality and natural instincts. All of this goes against the moral ethics of God, who promises his followers a safe place in Heaven. But in order to reach this Heaven, we must live our lives according to the laws and ethics of that world here on earth, and this is where the problem lies.

The death of God A rightful Christian lives his life according to the moral laws of Heaven, otherwise he's not allowed through the pearly gates and thus is condemned to Hell for all of eternity. This means that Christianity demonizes the earthly life and its natural laws, in favour of a world reduced of all unpleasant things inherent to this reality. What Nietzsche and many people like him in the modern age did was to slowly begin to openly criticize the very foundation of the Christian faith. Was there really a God? Did a Heaven really exist, and if so, was it something worth striving for?

But the very thing that led to the decline of Christianity in the West was the new scientific optimism of the Enlightment. During this time, man's capacity to human reason and objective truth was upheld, and religious faith came under attack for supporting a dead cause. Science and technological development would lead humanity into a better age of material wealth and prosperity. For Nietzsche, this age marked the point when God was "killed." We searched for the truth and came to find that there is no God. "Great," one might say, "we found that God isn't real and just some made up hocus-pocus fantasy for superstitious ignorants. Time for truth to reign!"

This is what many people during this time thought. They felt immediately relieved by knowing they no longer had to care for a God that didn't exist. But as Nietzsche noted, truth isn't always what we seek. When a truth we previously thought to be real is suddenly proven to be false, we instantly need something new to replace the missing truth with. He asked himself: if we don't believe in gods anymore, what are we to believe in? People were slowly beginning to ask themselves the same question, without coming to any conclusion. Suddenly a fate worse than ever had come true: man had abandoned his belief in the eternal gods, but without returning to something else. As Heaven had turned out to be a religious dream and the earthly life still represented what was ethically and morally demonized, man had nowhere to go. Alone, shattered by the despair of being caught in a world of horror, he was doomed to live in a void of emptiness.

Science and Mystification

Nietzsche exposed Christianity as a religion against life, in the sense that its idealism towards a higher divine completion, naturally rejected the things on earth that could hurt or kill the individual, thus actually promoting a form of materialism where the comfort of the individual became the highest goal. Because of this, Nietzsche could predict the modern atheist dilemma of not knowing what to believe in, since the development of Christianity followed a natural course. It could only preserve its belief in God as long as it was based on dogmatic morality. As soon as science explored the world by means of logic and rationality, the Christian myths and most of its moral foundation would naturally be exposed as lies (hinting at the irony in the title The Gay Science).

But the death of God doesn't just symbolize the slow end of Christianity. To Nietzsche, this crucial moment in history is actually a tragic moment, because it also represents the time when man loses his belief in higher ideals. We find ourselves living a life without knowing why. The meaning of existence has been reduced to the mere presence of being. Is this the end of humanity? Does this period in history mark the last breath of idealism, heroism and great art?

Nietzsche's answer is that it does not have to. There is a glimpse of hope, but we cannot expect to find it either in God or in science. God cannot provide us with meaning, because he's part of a false religion that despises the core of human life itself. Science may seem to provide us with a clear, rational belief in truth, Science and religion can be complementary but as Nietzsche cleverly reveals, science and religion are ultimately not that different from each other. Both share a belief in an objective truth, which assumes we are able to perceive reality as it truly is, without human subjectivity. Nietzsche describes how science, like religion, finds its understanding of reality through theory, which is never completely in accordance with the actual truth. When a scientific theory is proven wrong, people begin to understand that not even the promise of objectivity can save them from themselves:

[..] [A] culture based on the principles of science must be destroyed when it begins to grow illogical, that is, to retreat before its own consequences. Our art reveals this universal distress: in vain does one depend imitatively on all the great productive periods and natures; in vain does one accumulate the entire "world-literature" around modern man for his comfort; in vain does one place oneself in the midst of the art styles and artists of all ages, so that one may give names to them as Adam did to the beasts: one still remains externally hungry, the "critic" without joy and energy, the Alexandrian man, who is at bottom a librarian and corrector of proofs, and wretchedly goes blind from the dust of books and from printers' errors. (The Birth of Tragedy, §18)

Science is a contextless approach to life, which means it doesn't offer any existential truth or guidance, only clinical conclusions. Science can for instance research the origin of the universe, but makes no assertions on why it came about or what meaning it has to us. Only an existential philosophy can bring meaning to our lives and it is here that Nietzsche discovers the problems with turning science into the new religion. It doesn't provide us with the truths we seek, because it has no contextual relation to our existence. It gives us numbers, but numbers alone bring neither enlightenment nor happiness.

Instead, Nietzsche begins to examine the motives behind redirecting beliefs from religion to science, and finds that it has become a shallow substitute for the missing ideals, trying to hide the underlying emptiness inherent to human existence:

Where science is not the most recently appearing form of the ascetic ideal—and then it's a matter of cases too rare, noble, and exceptional to counter the general judgment—science today is a hiding place for all kinds of unhappiness, disbelief, gnawing worms, despectio sui [self-contempt], bad conscience. It is the anxiety of the absence of ideals, suffering from the lack of a great love, the dissatisfaction with a condition of involuntary modest content. Oh, what nowadays does science not conceal! How much, at least, is it designed to conceal! The efficiency of our best scholars, their mindless diligence, their heads smoking day and night, the very mastery of their handiwork—how often has all this derived its meaning from the fact that they don't permit some things to become visible to them any more! Science as a means of putting themselves to sleep. (On the Genealogy of Morals, §23)

Because of its very nature and the state it currently is in, Nietzsche predicts a mystification of scientific "truth," which will eventually lead to the same nihilistic state as the Christian religion led to before it: the realization that there doesn't exist any objective truth inherent to life. Truth is a human subjective creation that is applied to life in order to give it meaning, but outside of it lies the void of emptiness. What will become of the godless modern individual, fleeing from his inevitable destiny? Is there any hope left?


Many people often group Nietzsche together with the modern existentialists, in that he believes that life lacks any inherent meaning, as effectively exposed via the deconstruction of religion and science. This in turn leaves people with a sense of anguish and despair; what will we do next, now that we've become gods? It's true that Nietzsche's proto-existentialist philosophy deals a lot with the suffering and pain that make up much of human existence. In some regards one can even claim that the core of his philosophy very much is about finding a productive and positive way of approaching emptiness and pain, but Nietzsche's existentialism is much more than just a passive affirmation. It's a wild and ecstatic celebration of what it really means to be a human, while secretly suggesting an existence beyond what we currently are taking for granted.

Philosophy of the Hammer

We continue where we left off, by trying to answer the question: "Is there any hope left?" As Nietzsche explains, the West is rapidly declining in spirit, losing the values that once made it so great. He refers to this creeping emptiness, or lack of values, as nihilism. But Nietzsche's view on nihilism is different from that of the popular interpretation - the belief in nothing. He doesn't see nihilism as a final stage from which we'll never be able to escape. In fact, his fear and contempt for a dying civilization are feelings that gradually shift toward a new philosophy; a new spirit of hope for the future. He calls it the transvaluation of all values.

The transvaluation of all values through war and nihilism The way Nietzsche sees it, the age of nihilism is a natural product of the Christian denial of life. Christianity doesn't affirm the things that define a happy and virtuous life; strength, wisdom, power, growth, expansion and heroism. Instead it tries to achieve power by morally upholding that which is weak and failing. Sooner or later, Nietzsche explains, the Christian slave-instincts reduce its own worldview to that of nihilism. This process is horrible but inevitable; our only chance to survive it is to transcend the Christian nihilism by creating new values. These values must be noble and life-affirming in character, otherwise they will succumb to the black hole of Christian life-denial.

The transvaluation of all values marks a historical shift towards new values, but the symbol of this process becomes evident: since values, morals and ethics are social codes created by man and not something that is inherent to nature itself, these are in fact variables. We can create values and equally kill them. Nietzsche finds that this process can be used as a productive philosophical method, as a hammer: we smash all values for the sake of observing which ones will remain. The remaining values will thus be truthful, being able to resist the age of nihilism. Nietzsche depicts this inequality between values through a symbolic aphorism:

"Why so hard!"--said to the diamond one day the charcoal; "are we then not near relatives?"--

Why so soft? O my brethren; thus do I ask you: are ye then not--my brethren?

Why so soft, so submissive and yielding? Why is there so much negation and abnegation in your hearts? Why is there so little fate in your looks?

And if ye will not be fates and inexorable ones, how can ye one day-- conquer with me?

And if your hardness will not glance and cut and chip to pieces, how can ye one day--create with me?

For the creators are hard. And blessedness must it seem to you to press your hand upon millenniums as upon wax,--

--Blessedness to write upon the will of millenniums as upon brass,--harder than brass, nobler than brass. Entirely hard is only the noblest.

This new table, O my brethren, put I up over you: BECOME HARD!-- (Thus Spake Zarathustra, Chapter III, §29)

"Become hard" - this is Nietzsche's own philosophy of resistance to the age of decline in which he found himself locked inside. To survive the forces that threaten the Western culture and its heroic values, we must create and build for the future. Nihilism becomes a productive tool in this process, by which we are able to discern between lie and truth, illusion and reality. This active nihilism was the product of Nietzsche's astounding will to fight back, despite living a lonely life in constant physical and mental suffering. His rise to the top was now definite and so he came to create a concept that once again would change the Western philosophy forever.


One of Nietzsche's most controversial and misunderstood philosophical concepts is that of the Übermensch, or Overman. We first become acquainted with the Overman in Thus Spake Zarathustra:

I TEACH YOU THE SUPERMAN. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man?

All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and ye want to be the ebb of that great tide, and would rather go back to the beast than surpass man?

What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame.

Ye have made your way from the worm to man, and much within you is still worm. Once were ye apes, and even yet man is more of an ape than any of the apes. (Thus Spake Zarathustra, Chapter I, §3)

Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman--a rope over an abyss.

A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting. (Thus Spake Zarathustra, Chapter I, §4)

The three stages of man - animal, human, god - is an ancient theory that for example appears in the epic of Gilgamesh. It claims that man is not a determined constant, but a creature able to either degenerate and sink to the level of the animal, or rise above the human conditions and overcome itself. To do this, we must learn how to cope with our inherent human weaknesses and turn them into something productive that will lead to greater glory. But the worst fate of man is not to become an animal. It is to turn the will to power into the will of preservation, that is, to preserve and maintain the state of the human conditions, neither sinking nor rising.

Gilgamesh, hero king of Uruk, managed to overcome himself Nietzsche calls this state the Last Man; the modern Westerner has through Christian morality demonized his animal nature but has also lost his noble values that once forced him to overcome himself. As a result, his philosophy has turned inwards in the form of a struggle for immediate survival and preservation. To counter this nihilism produced by Christian life-denial, Nietzsche calls on us to rise above and let go of our human - all too human - characteristics.

Firstly, we must reject the errors of the nihilistic Christian faith. We reject the belief that the meek will inherit the earth. We reject pity. We reject weakness. We reject the power of the mass. We stand alone, ready for war and destruction, to destroy that which has proven to be illusory and keep both feet on earth. There is no platonic transcendence beyond this world, no objective truth to release man from his earthly existence and become divine - there is no God that promises us a better life.

Secondly, we must understand the age of nihilism. We mustn't fear it. On the contrary, we ought to celebrate it and worship it as the process in which the false idols slowly fade away, thus leaving room for us to create new values and new idols. These idols will be our guiding star for future generations, which thanks to our belief in overcoming nihilism, will continue to uphold the noble virtues of life-affirmation and life celebration.

Thirdly, we must leave the passive state of being human and overcome ourselves; we must follow our will to power and strive to become Overmen. We do this by learning how to cope with our inner Dionysus and channel the destructive powers into pure creativity. This can only be done if we possess these Dionysian powers. As Zarathustra puts it: "one must have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star" (Thus Spake Zarathustra, Chapter I, §5).

The Overman can therefore be said to represent an existential process, in which the Western man learns how to cope with the death of values and ideals that for a long time have suppressed the natural instincts in man, and use that tragic nihilism productively by establishing new values that eventually will lead not only to noble values transcending the Judeo-Christian faith, but finally to the point where the human weaknesses and pitfalls such as pity, self-defeatism and slave psychology will be overcome, thus marking an entirely new time in history of mankind: the age of the Overman.

The Will to Power

During the 19th century, a lot of revolutionary discoveries were being made. One of them, detailed in the publication of Charles Darwin's world famous Origin of Species (1859), marked a new time in history. Man was suddenly not a divine creation of God, but simply a more evolved form of animal whose instincts for lust and struggle still were present in modern times. This came to change the way man viewed himself in relation to the rest of the animal kingdom, but most of all, it confirmed what many philosophers for some time had suggested: man is not essentially driven forward by moral good, but merely by primitive urges stored in our evolutionary memory.

Charles Darwin Nietzsche belonged to the group of thinkers who rejected the Christian moral foundation, but he was likely alone in dismissing the theories of contemporary biologists. Darwin's theory, today known as "natural selection," was essentially that all species on our planet are living by an instinct to survive, and that the fittest of life forms are those that are adapted to their surroundings, while the less adapted go under. Different thinkers have over the years reinterpreted this in many ways, for instance as a social theory applied to economical classes (Social Darwinism) and even pure strength ("Might is Right").

Nietzsche wasn't satisfied by any of these theories. In his opinion, natural selection didn't fully explain why we choose to live and what our most basic urges are to strive for existence. He formed his own concept, more existentialist that than the pure naturalist science of Darwin and his colleagues, that was coined "the will to power." The will to power, Nietzsche claims, is the very core of a living being's struggle to live. Contrary to the material struggle that Darwin outlined, the will to power is not purely about the struggle for survival. Instead, it's a will to expand, conquer, grow and gain energy which ultimately motivates us to live.

The following excerpt from The Antichrist is an early echo of this philosophy:

What is good?—Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man.

What is evil?—Whatever springs from weakness.

What is happiness?—The feeling that power increases—that resistance is overcome. (The Antichrist, §2)

Power itself is seen as a continuous ever-growing instinct, which may include but is not reduced to the struggle for immediate survival. The will to power constitutes a divergence from Schopenhauer's philosophy. While the Schopenhauerian Will is the will to preserve and sustain one's own life, Nietzsche's will is a greater will that may even include other wills to grow even stronger, through unity. Controversially, he includes virtues such as love, lying, pity - and even the search for objective truth itself - as a basic will to power. Life itself becomes the very definition of this Nietzschean will:

[Anything which] be a living and not a dying organization, do all that towards other bodies, which the individuals within it refrain from doing to each other it will have to be the incarnated Will to Power, it will endeavour to grow, to gain ground, attract to itself and acquire ascendancy-- not owing to any morality or immorality, but because it LIVES, and because life IS precisely Will to Power. (Beyond Good and Evil, §259)

The brilliant discovery that Nietzsche made with his new theory was to both debunk the Christian belief in man's natural capacity to moral good and the 19th century materialism that claimed man lived only for material urges. Instead, he looked for deeper motivations behind why we act like we do. His conclusion was that all living organisms live to fight back any resistance and grow more powerful, where power is not defined by material wealth or prosperity, but by an existentialist drive to the very feeling of power itself, raw and mighty. Thus the process of natural selection was no longer only a struggle for survival, but a struggle for power to grasp more of life - more of existence itself.

The Eternal Recurrence

To understand our existence as a phenomenon, we must first grasp the concept of time. One can say that there are mainly two different views on time: the linear and the cyclic view. The former is represented in the Judeo-Christian culture, where time is commonly seen as a progressive development towards a continually better state of being. This view is still with us today, in the sense that we speak of a modern "progress," often pointing to technological development. The opposite view is the ancient Indo-European conception of time that was upheld in Classical Greece, wherein time was seen as something cyclic and repetitive. One can best describe the difference by imagining time as a rope; the Judeo-Christian view sees time as outstretched, pointing upwards, while the Ancient Greeks regarded time as an endless circle without any ends.

Nietzsche, whom we already know as a great admirer of Ancient Greek culture, found a perfect metaphor to describe the actual meaning of a time that is cyclic in nature. In The Gay Science he writes:

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your live will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence--even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!' Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.' (The Gay Science, §341)

The implication of this aphorism is best understood when we position ourselves in that same situation and try to imagine its impact on our life here and now. As Nietzsche says, we'll first become very sceptical, perhaps even afraid, of what it will actually mean to live the same life over and over again. Until we stop and think: if it were true, how would I deal with it? Life, contrary to the progressive view that we'll be happier and happier as time goes by, is filled with a lot of sad and horrible moments. Nietzsche knew that pain and suffering were real and inescapable. So how can we deal with pain; how can we overcome the horror of life? Nietzsche found that the best way is to accept pain as an experience itself - "what does not kill me makes me stronger" - and to actively open up yourself to life.

The eternal recurrence is deterministic in the sense that it doesn't believe in free will, seeing the individual instead as an organic product of a circular flow of events; we cannot find "new truths" about life, only discover and learn from the eternal aspects of our existence. This means that happiness ultimately must lie in eternity and this is where Nietzsche's aphorism begins to have a practical impact on our lives: if we were forced to live our life over and over, surely we'd want it to be as rich and meaningful as possible. The eternal recurrence We'd have to affirm life, get rid of our denial of death and pain, and realize we're simply just a small part of a much larger system. We'd have to learn how to live life passionately and strive for eternity. But how?

Since we all are going to die, eternity cannot possibly be found in the self, like Christianity claims. Instead, we must search for the things in life that continue living beyond our presence here on earth. Left are the remains of a noble individual: great art, great discoveries, great battles and great historical landmarks. The only way to become immortal is by creating and fighting to change the world in which we live to the point that it will repeat our deeds long after we're gone. The music of Ludwig van Beethoven, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer: these masters continue to live on through their gifts of art to mankind, because they managed to catch a glimpse of eternity in their creations. Nietzsche, who tragically passed away during an age of steady decline, still managed to collect his powers and continue fighting for what he believed in. He died convinced that he had left the world in a different state than it was before, and he was right: through his astounding legacy of poetry, philosophical aphorisms, music and letters, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche had declared war against an entire modern world, shaking its very foundations to tear down everything sacred and holy, restoring ancient order and urging the future generations to live with courage and honour.

Friedrich Nietzsche - a CORRUPT perspective

My dear friend, what is this our life? A boat that swims in the sea, and all one knows for certain about it is that one day it will capsize. Here we are, two good old boats that have been faithful neighbors, and above all your hand has done its best to keep me from "capsizing"! Let us then continue our voyage—each for the other's sake, for a long time yet, a long time! We should miss each other so much! Tolerably calm seas and good winds and above all sun—what I wish for myself, I wish for you, too, and am sorry that my gratitude can find expression only in such a wish and has no influence at all on wind or weather. (Excerpt from a letter to Franz Overbeck)

When Friedrich Nietzsche left the world, there was an uneasy feeling in the air throughout Europe. The First World War had not yet begun, but the very foundations of faith, reason and civilization were giving signs of being undermined from within. The positivism of the Enlightment was over, now that people began to realize the negative effects of all technological development taking place. Religion was still around, but found itself in a world where the number of believers gradually became fewer and secularization continued to grow. Society rapidly improved in some areas, but underneath all these improvements, one could easily discern future political problems that would inevitably arise from the alliances and conflicts of the era.

World War I marked the period in history when mankind fell victim to its own brutal nature Nietzsche grew up in an unstable time, when previous certainties regarding faith, science and human good were slowly breaking down. The shallow optimism that people tried to uphold as a resistance abhorred his search for truth and direction in life. He distanced himself from religion altogether and felt that he was being drawn into a circle of chaos. In order to preserve his own sanity, he endeavored to find the reason behind people's motives and actions. One of the biggest contributions Nietzsche made to philosophy was a scepticism of social constructs perceived as holy laws.

Morals and ethics don't necessarily define something in accordance with reality. In fact, many of our moral stances are created as an antidote or sleeping pill, so that we are able to face the boredom, pain and horror life brings. The problem with trying to create a "safe" world of your own is that it easily becomes confused with the actual reality that we're all a part of. Religion, and Judeo-Christianity specifically, is to blame for injecting this into Western culture: the myths and rituals of pre-Christian faiths were actually an expression of the human conditions here on earth, but for Christianity, these myths became actual physical worlds with unrealistic conditions that people had to follow in order to achieve spiritual transcendence, a false transcendence that eventually resulted in its own deconstruction. God was “killed”, but the question is, “did he not ultimately take his own life?”

What followed was echoed by Nietzsche's attack on Socrates: religion turned out to be a hoax, and science was the new faith that took its place - but was it any better? Socrates had in ancient Greece defended man's capacity for human reason, which Nietzsche saw as de-emphasizing the emotional power of Dionysus and believing in a false, clinical worldview that was not based on truth, but rather directionless speculation and crass materialism. Man lost his will to live life passionately and resorted to hiding from life, underneath the cloak of "truth" and "dignity." What dignity was left, now that culture had become as dry as a desert?

The heroic and darkly emotive music by Richard Wagner gave Nietzsche new hope for the future: this was the rebirth of German culture that he had so longed hoped for. A life in constant strife and battle appealed to him, portraying a stark contrast against both dogmatic self-denial and scientific rationality. But the fight to resurrect the German spirit turned out to be much harder than expected. The problem wasn't just the external; faith, power, dignity, individuality - but the human creature in its very nature seemed to posses a multitude of flaws. These flaws were human but nonetheless flaws and thus had to be dealt with. What followed was an angry Nietzsche who fired a caustic shot at modern humanism and instead upheld virtues and ideals that tried to transcend the average human individual. If Europe was to rise again from the chaos it had become entangled in, its only hope lied in overcoming the empty space it had created and lay foundation to something new for future generations. Men had to cease being merely men and aim to become overmen.

Nietzsche urges us to resist anything that is standing in the way of what we believe in Nietzsche's physical and mental conditions would hold him hostage for the remainder of his life, leaving him without a single moment of happiness and always reminding him of the tragic existential fate all human beings share. The agony and despair did not however succeed in swallowing his immense will to live and transcend. The modern stereotype of a bitter and lonely man who hates everyone and everything must be erased from history and replaced with the actual Nietzsche we get to know through his writings and music: the German genius who celebrated life, worshipped it as a god, remained faithful to its laws and harsh conditions. His philosophy came to evolve into a merciless devotion to that which tests our strength and courage and thus serves to improve our power and will to live.

For modern readers, this is the Nietzsche we must learn from and apply in our daily lives. By getting rid of our self-defeatism, our shame of loneliness, our resentment against conflict and mastery, and our obsession with others and ourselves, we can slowly begin to face life realistically with the honour of being alive, here and now. Even though the past is dark and the current time may seem like an everlasting sorrow and emptiness, nothing is declared finished yet. Life must go on in the real world, but the real world is ultimately only dedicated to those who dare to challenge and rise above. If you become one of those who dare to take on such a challenge, today is war, but the eternity of tomorrow belongs to you, forever.

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Further reading

Friedrich Nietzsche, "Beyond Good and Evil"

Friedrich Nietzsche, "On the Genealogy of Morals"

Friedrich Nietzsche, "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense" HTML

Friedrich Nietzsche, "The Antichrist"

Friedrich Nietzsche, "The Birth of Tragedy"

Friedrich Nietzsche, "Twilight of the Idols"

Henry Louis Mencken, "The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche"


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