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NietzscheFriedrich Nietzsche sought to change the world, and there is significant evidence that the existentialist philosopher succeeded. Many of the contemporary world’s assumptions regarding the primacy of individualism and the disavowal of universals were exposited by Nietzsche.[1] Yet, one of this thinker’s most important revolutions lay in his complete redefinition of philosophy. The dominant ideas of the ages, the philosopher posited, had led Europe into a state of “decadence.”[2] Religion—Christianity most of all—ingrained within the minds of men a glorification of weakness. This weakness was, in turn, complemented by modernity’s incessant drive for scientific improvement. The failures of religion and science, for Nietzsche, rested ultimately in their metaphysical assumptions. While classical philosophers acknowledged the existence of a metaphysical reality and truths higher than man, Nietzsche explicitly denied both.[3] This repudiation of metaphysics radically alters the role of a philosopher. Traditional philosophy succumbed to Nietzsche’s new philosophy, which endeavored to create truth, and not to discover it.

Nietzsche and Christianity

Nietzsche’s assault on Christianity immortalized him as a bleak nihilist who gleefully proclaimed that “God is dead.”[4] In truth, Nietzsche described the death of God as a tumultuous event in world history which threatened to plunge mankind into nihilism. Nietzsche argued that all the things built on monotheistic assumptions, including traditional morality, became endangered alongside the church.[5] While Nietzsche avoided triumphalism, he nonetheless recognized the extraordinary opportunity before his very eyes. The demise of old meanings, Nietzsche believed, could be overcome through exertions of the will to power—the “unexhausted procreative will of life.”[6] Without this will, human history would have no meaning at all.[7] The story of history, for Nietzsche, was simply the desultory tale of how new values subordinate the old ones. Indeed, as he memorably proclaimed, the one universal law in history is that “what is strong wins.”[8] With the eradication of outdated and “weak” Christian values by the will to power, Nietzsche suggested that it is now the job of philosophers to create new value-systems.

Nietzsche once alleged that Christianity was “the most fatal and seductive lie that has ever yet existed… the greatest and most impious lie.”[9] His malice stemmed from his desire to encourage individualism. The philosopher believed that Christianity stifled individual fulfillment by rewarding weakness, inhibiting the strong man’s ability to succeed.[10] Furthermore, Nietzsche argued that the religion’s otherworldly emphasis does nothing to better the tangible world. Despite these problems, the poor and downtrodden cling to their religion out of the vain hope that one day their problems will vanish.[11] They will be disappointed, Nietzsche holds, when they cease to exist after living a dehumanizing life of frailty. All in all, the existentialist found Christianity to be in a total “revolt against life.”[12] Nietzsche, as a philosopher tasked with deconstructing and constructing malleable “truths,” presents his alternative: the overman. This is the ideal man who rips asunder the beliefs of the past and rebuilds the world in his image.[13] Each age needs an overman, per Nietzsche, because each age desires meaning.[14] In the absence of God, the overman can take His place as the arbiter of human purpose. Ultimately, Nietzsche intended to eradicate Christianity to enhance the individual’s capacity to create truth. “Man,” he tellingly claimed, is “god in the making.”[15]

Nietzsche and Science

Nietzsche did not believe that Christianity was the only root of Europe’s modern decadence. He also included science as an “offspring of the will to art,” responsible for modern disarray.[16] A superficial observer may wonder how contemporary science, that Baconian product of the Enlightenment, could be a metaphysical force shaping the destiny of modern Europe. Nietzsche blamed—somewhat unsurprisingly—the influence of early Christianity on the development of Western sciences for the failings of the empiricists.[17] Nietzsche suggested that, as much as the “godless ones” would like to deny it, science is based on a metaphysical faith: “that Christian faith, which was also Plato’s faith, that God is truth, and that truth is divine.”[18] The pursuit of truth for the sake of truth, Nietzsche held, has dangerously been the primary motivating force pushing scientific development. So-called “truths” should be questioned—not pursued.

Darwinism, Nietzsche argued, perfectly encapsulates a “scientific” metaphysic; its proponents take it to be an eternal truth—applicable to all things in all times.[19] While Nietzsche’s belief in the inevitable victory of strong values seems influenced by Darwinian thought, there is a serious difference, for Nietzsche holds that the strong will always “win,” not that the strong will always be the best. Indeed, the very idea of “best” implies that some standard of the good exists. Nietzsche’s idea that the modern world is decadent, inferior in many ways to Ancient Athens, is irreconcilable with the Darwinian and Hegelian assumptions that man lives in the pinnacle of history. While Nietzsche may find some validity to the biological tenants of Darwinism, he believed that any metaphysic—including a secular one—subjects the human spirit and suffocates the will to power.

Conclusion

Nietzsche believed that clinging to any metaphysical standard of truth, whether done subliminally as a scientist or overtly as a churchgoer, stymies the human capacity to create meaning. In adhering to a metaphysical reality, men sacrifice the betterment of present conditions for the sake of an illusory abstraction. Furthermore, they enslave themselves to their own creation. Nietzsche holds that science and religion are creations of temporal people—they do not reveal any kind of eternal standard of truth. That which does not exist cannot be revealed. Without any presence of metaphysics or higher standards to seek, the very idea of philosophy is thrown into question. Nietzsche, quite appropriately, has been dubbed “the anti-philosopher” for that very reason.[20] Under this figure’s tutelage, modern philosophy has become a mere exercise in the will to power—a critique of established assumptions to bring about the next ones. After all, if, as Nietzsche once put it, “there are no facts; only interpretations,” then anything can be questioned, even the most traditional moral virtues.[21] The Nietzschean philosopher is an overman; he conquers and creates standards but does not discover them. In the postmodern age of self-actualization and radical skepticism, Nietzsche’s influence is clearly manifest. Perhaps—as Nietzsche suggests—this assumption is waiting to be overpowered by another philosophy.

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[1] Cornel West, “Nietzsche’s Prefiguration of Postmodern American Philosophy,” boundary 2 9, no. 3 – Vol. 10, no. 1 (Spring-Autumn 1981): 241-269.

[2] Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin Books, 1976) 478.

[3] John P. East, “Leo Strauss and American Conservatism,” Modern Age 21, no. 1 (Winter 1977): 15.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, 447.

[5] Ibid., 447.

[6] Ibid., 226

[7] Ibid., 39.

[8] Ibid., 39.

[9] R.C. Sproul, The Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts that Shaped Our World, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 165.

[10] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, 571.

[11] Ibid., 145.

[12] Ibid., 490.

[13] Ibid., 125.

[14] Ibid., 125.

[15] John P. East, “Leo Strauss and American Conservatism,” Modern Age 21, no. 1 (Winter 1977): 15.

[16] Arthur C. Danto, Nietzsche as Philosopher: Expanded Edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 53.

[17] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, 450.

[18] Ibid., 450.

[19] Ibid., 522-523.

[20] Douglas J. Soccio, “The Anti-Philosopher: Friedrich Nietzsche,” in Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy, 9th ed. (Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2016), 446.

[21] Erich Heller, The Importance of Nietzsche (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 66.

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2 replies to this post
  1. “In truth, Nietzsche described the death of God as a tumultuous event in world history which threatened to plunge mankind into nihilism.” Finally someone got it right! Before Nietzsche, the idea of the death of God had been also espoused by Martin Luther and Hegel.

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