Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900)
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote extensively on religion, morality, culture and science. His frequent attacks on Christianity and his fellow philosophers alienated many and, after his death, his reputation further suffered as his theories were associated with Nazism. However, the late twentieth century saw a revival of Nietzsche’s philosophical writings, with many thinkers such as Sartre, Foucault and Derrida becoming attracted by his ideas.
While Nietzsche was hostile to Darwin, and attacked many of his ideas, he was profoundly influenced by him and he wrote in a scientific culture transformed by Darwinism. Indeed, Nietzsche’s work was infused with the themes of struggle and evolution, specifically the most controversial Darwinian idea – that humankind had evolved through a process of chance and necessity.
Taking Darwin’s theory as a starting point, the German thinker considered both its philosophical and theological implications. He dismissed the notion that the world was following a course laid down by a directing agency, and followed others in embracing the idea of random change: he wrote “The total nature of the world is… to all eternity chaos”. He then developed his docrine that, due to scientific developments and the secularization of the West, society had lost its meaning along with the Judeo-Christian values it had held for over a thousand years. Perhaps most people now know Nietzsche from his provocative statement, “God is dead”.
This loss of any universal perspective and of objective truth would then be replaced with diverse, multiple and fluid moral systems. Yet men could take advantage of the collapse of certainties and create their own morality by disposing of old distinctions between good and evil, and so go on to redefine what was good and bad. On one side, he saw the good “life-affirming” values of wealth, strength, health, and power; on the other, negative “life-denying” values associated with the poor, the weak, and the sick.
Nietzsche believed that humanity could continue to evolve and progress, but had developed a tendency to become static and stagnant. There was even a danger that men would slip back down the evolutionary slope. To overcome this new mediocrity, he called for the strong to reassert their own health and vitality, and to again unleash their ‘will to power’. For Nietzsche, power was the primary motivation in human behavior and, through conflict, those with superior traits should extinguish the inferior, and then go on to multiply:
“Let us admit to ourselves…how every higher culture on earth so far has begun. Human beings whose nature was still natural, barbarians in every terrible sense of the word, men of prey who were still in possession of unbroken strength of will and lust for power, hurled themselves upon weaker, more civilized, more peaceful races…”
Taking Machiavelli as an inspiration, Nietzsche recommended that power should be wielded without guilt, or any compassion for those who fell victims to progress. He held the view that human nature was a product of the struggle to survive and that the same struggle could propel humanity even further. To reach this higher state, he introduced the concept of a value-creating Ubermensch - a superman or overman – who would be the next step in evolution. Writing before the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, Nietzsche believed that what he saw as the ‘European problem’ could be solved by “the cultivation of a new caste that will rule Europe”:
“I teach you the overman… You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape…The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth… Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman – a rope over an abyss… what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end…”
Not surprisingly, Nietzsche’s theories remain controversial. Along with his philosophy and its echoes in the events of the twentieth century, his provocative writing style and fondness for metaphor has engendered widespread disagreement about his significance and how his work should be interpreted.