German Pessimism (AKA Happy Fun Time!)
In the mid 1800s, the time of the philosophers Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, Germany and German thought went through a period of great pessimism. Just like in ancient Egypt, Greece and China, human thought often flourishes in periods of tragedy and war as people are forced to turn critically to old conceptions and institutions and ask hard questions about what works and does not work for the individual and the community. In the late 1700s, the American and French revolutions, along with developments in England, had brought new rights to the common people.
When the German people rose up to fight for rights similar to their neighbors, several German princes came together to crush the popular people’s movement. Germany was at this time a loose confederacy of regional principalities, ruled locally by princes. Hegel’s students Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto for this discouraged audience, arguing that the people would one day rise up and overcome oppression with a revolution that would remove the capitalists from society just as the French Revolution had removed the nobility and much of the clergy.
Recall that Descartes, Kant and other Rationalists argued that the human mind is capable of deducing certain and objective truth, such as that found in algebraic mathematics, and that Hegel believed that human thought was completing itself by reason through the process of history. When the political tide turned against the German people, who sought a more reasonable society with greater rights like the Americans and French, the people began to wonder about reason and human progress. Is the world, society or mind run by reason? If so, does reason always work objectively for the good of everyone? This question created a tide of pessimism and skepticism about authority and objectivity, found in popular folk songs and elite intellectual texts alike. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates (as Plato’s mouthpiece) argued that the world is created from ideal forms that can be known by the just and wise, but Thrasymachus argued that justice is merely the will of the stronger who can impose their ‘order’ on others.
German thought likewise turned from the reason of Leibniz and Kant towards the will of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche as the ordering force in the Darwinian world. The world is tough, not necessarily reasonable, and ideas must be fought for, even if they are imperfect. Life, at its best, is romantic and dramatic, not rational or mathematical. Kant and Hegel were confident that reason can complete itself as a system. Pessimism turned away from reason, completion and objectivity, towards passion, incompleteness and subjectivity. While Schopenhauer and Nietzsche both admired Socrates, and wanted people to push on towards what they find to be beautiful and good, they rejected Plato’s objective and ideal forms.
German pessimism, centrally Schopenhauer and his follower Nietzsche but also very applicable to the Danish thinker Kierkegaard, fed into the later Existentialism of Sartre and Absurdism of Camus. Sartre, who coined the term ‘Existentialism’, claimed Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as its founders, even though neither used the term. All these thinkers flourished in popularity during two more recent periods of pessimism: WWI for Europe (producing the Dada modern art movement) and post-WWII for America (producing the counter-culture of the beatniks during the Korean war, and then hippies during the Vietnam War, both particularly thriving in the Bay Area). More recently, the work of Nietzsche and Heidegger has lead to French Postmodernism. We will be studying Heidegger, Sartre, Existentialism and Postmodernism in the weeks to come.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860), who looks in his famous portrait like a cross between a cranky/kindly old grandfather and Wolverine of the X Men, was a follower of Kant, but unlike his own follower Nietzsche who despised Kant and argued against him frequently, Schopenhauer took Kant’s philosophy and radically extended it. Like Nietzsche, as well as Confucius, Schopenhauer’s father died tragically when he was young, leaving him free to pursue philosophy rather than the family profession. For Schopenhauer, it was business. For Nietzsche, it was the ministry.
Remember that Kant conceded to Hume that the world is unknown and all we can have about it are assumptions, but reason is capable of rendering objective truth about the mind and its categories. Schopenhauer, more pessimistic about the use of reason than Kant, saw the gulf and gap between the world and our ideas as a stormy abyss that forever frustrates our idealizations. He agreed with Kant that the mind works categorically and mathematically, but the gap between our conceptions and the ‘thing-in-itself’ turned Schopenhauer from Kant’s Rationalism and mathematical science to the Upanishads, Buddhism and the ecstasy of art. Much as Marx took Hegel and “stood him on his head”, turning his dialectical Idealism into dialectical materialism, Schopenhauer stood Kant on his head, in some ways following his own Kantian teacher Fichte, turning from the objectivity of reason to the centrality of will.
Schopenhauer argued that we are, in essence, a striving. Like Nietzsche, his follower, Schopenhauer was critical of other philosophers for focusing on abstractions of reason and ignoring love, friendship, sexuality, and artistic passion, which are central to our existence, the things we find most meaningful. German pessimism wasn’t entirely pessimistic, as it replaced objectivity and truth with meaning and passion. For Kant freedom comes from reason. For Schopenhauer, freedom is only in terms of the will, found primarily in the motions of the body and emotions of the mind.
Schopenhauer, like Freud, considered the freedom of reason to be an illusion, as the mind is compulsive relative to the body. Thoughts appear free, but the purest part of our freedom is not in the channeling of abstractions, but in the self-recognition of volition. Schopenhauer compared abstract concepts to Plato’s shadows on the cave wall, what he considered to be the ultimate insight of Plato. However, for Schopenhauer, the Sun outside the cave is the will of all, life as a force, not the rational sum of conceptions. Schopenhauer argued that there is no objective thought apart from emotion, like Hume, though he did not systematize this interaction. Nietzsche would pick up this theme later, just as Freud would attempt to systematize it as Psychoanalysis.
While many previous thinkers such as Plato try to separate emotion from thought to make it objective, for Schopenhauer thinking is delusional abstraction that separates us from our true self. It is individuation of abstraction, the abstract idea of separate selves, separate from the world and each other, that causes the will to be at odds with itself, which causes the selfishness often associated with will. Schopenhauer argued that it is thought, not will, which breaks the world into many parts and causes problems. Underneath our thoughts, the will of the world is one. The world is a battleground because of abstractions and ideas, which have misled the will into conflicts with itself. Science is not raising humanity up, but dividing it among itself. Science conjures up distinctions, while only art reunites us with the will as an undivided whole.
Remember that Hegel disliked Kant’s gap between our ideas and the ‘thing-in-itself’ and believed that it could be overcome by reason through dialectic. Schopenhauer disagreed with Hegel and argued that reason could not overcome the gap. In fact, Schopenhauer and Hegel both taught at the University of Berlin as brief philosophical rivals. As Hegel was becoming increasingly popular, Schopenhauer scheduled his lectures at the same time as Hegel’s to try to combat his philosophy, but when this backfired and more students attended Hegel’s lectures and Schopenhauer only had five students, he resigned after a single semester in disgust. Schopenhauer openly called Hegel a charlatan who tricks people into believing reason completely fleshes the world out, and wrote that when he read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit he felt as if he were in a madhouse.
Schopenhauer also ridiculed Hegel’s conception of history, which presented the Germans as near the summit of human civilization and world history. Schopenhauer did not see civilization as changing, but rather the same old mess. Society is a painful struggle of will. Beneath representation, the divisions of abstractions, there is only one will, divided and at war with itself. The world’s wars and social conflicts, such as the uprisings that contributed to German pessimism which eventually brought Schopenhauer his fame, convinced him that there was little progress and humanity remained much the same as it always had, without the possibility of Hegel’s great ascension. Schopenhauer believed that time doesn’t progress, and wrote that the history of a village and the history of an empire teach us the same thing. This is a very cyclical and cynical view of social progress.
While Hume did not speak his views about theism or atheism publicly, Schopenhauer, like Hegel’s student Marx, was openly an atheist, the first of the central modern European philosophers. Schopenhauer did believe that the world is alive, but it is not rational. Schopenhauer’s solution to the problem of evil was to reject the idea that a living world is a rational world. While he believed that the world shared a single will, he believed that rationality had turned the world against itself, each part striving against the other parts.
Even as an atheist, Schopenhauer was deeply influenced by Indian thought, specifically the Upanishads, Vedanta and Buddhism. As a youth, he had received a Latin translation of the Upanishads, the distillation of the philosophical meanings of the Hindu Vedas, and he was so impressed with them that he continued to read them every night before bed, and left the book open on his desk. Of the Upanishads, he wrote that they were the most sublime philosophy of world history, the product of “the highest human wisdom”, and that, “it has been the consolation of my life and will be the consolation of my death”. He predicted that the philosophy of the Upanishads would replace Christianity as the religion of Europe.
Schopenhauer only learned about Buddhism after he had already composed his philosophy, but he saw deep parallels between the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha and his own conception of existence as will and suffering, and would sometimes refer to himself as a Buddhist. The first three of the Four Noble Truths are existence is suffering, the cause of suffering is desire, and there is a way out of suffering. He wrote that, if his own philosophy was correct, it would be expected that it agree with the most popular system of thought in human history. He received instruction in meditation from a friend, though it is unknown whether he practiced with any regularity. Like much of Indian thought and Hume, who himself may very well have been influenced by Indian and Tibetan Buddhist sources, Schopenhauer argued that thought is caused by will and desire, the fundamental essence of all things. For Schopenhauer, we suffer because we are part of the greater will, of life itself, and our thinking makes us only a part, which is painful.
Schopenhauer’s central great work, The World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, 1818 CE), famously opens with the words, “The world is my representation”, about as succinct an expression of Idealism possible, particularly standing next to the long-winded works of Kant and Hegel. Both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche rejected Kant and Hegel’s approach of writing exhaustive systems, preferring to have several clear and deep ideas expressed in aphorisms, regardless of how systematic. This has made both more popular and enjoyable to read than Kant and Hegel for non-professionals, such as artists and authors.
For Schopenhauer, the mind represents and idealizes the world, which is essentially will. All things, including the concrete self and abstract conceptions, are manifestations of will. The world is full of perpetual striving for ideals that never come to perfection. The classic metaphor he uses is the ship bobbing on a stormy sea, a ship built of ideals as straight boards on a sea of chaotic desires. One must recognize one’s condition, and have the courage and will to hold one’s course in spite of the endless hardship. Developing sea legs and a tough stomach, to recognize oneself and one’s world as striving without hope for a Hegelian resolution by reason, is virtue and true strength. The subject that recognizes itself as willing still sees itself as a self, what Schopenhauer calls the “knot of the world”, the “mystery par excellence”, the only event purely for and in itself. Other than this authentic recognition, human existence is self-denial, “a pendulum between boredom and pain“.
There is for Schopenhauer one escape from will and the self, just as for Buddhism the fourth of the Noble Truths is that the way out is Buddhism itself. For Schopenhauer it is through art which we can temporarily escape ourselves and our thoughts through ecstasy and identification with others and the whole. Nietzsche similarly argued that creativity was the highest form of life, but he argued that it was not the loss of self and escape from will but rather the highest activity of the individual, self-assertion expressing power and accomplishment. For Schopenhauer, it is not standing out as an individual but identification with the world beyond representation, feeling unity with the other that transcends conceptualization.
Schopenhauer considered music the highest form of art, the form that embodies pure will itself, because unlike visual arts it represents and copies no particular things or ideas. In this way it is similar to American Abstract Minimalist painting and sculpture, influenced by Zen Buddhism, that became popular in the wake of WWII and with the Beatniks, art which goes beyond Cubism, Futurism and Surrealism in representing no particular things but striving to give shape to pure emotion and sensation. The composer Wagner befriended Nietzsche and promoted Nietzsche’s work due to their mutual love of the philosophy of Schopenhauer, revolutionary work for pessimistically minded German intellectuals of their time. The greatest art after music is tragedy, as it shows us the unified will divided painfully against itself. Consider the works of Shakespeare, and the suffering undergone due to ignorance and passion.
Like much of Indian thought, but very unlike Descartes, Schopenhauer saw animals as intimately related to human beings, both being similar manifestations of will, striving and suffering. Schopenhauer even believed that crystals display will and that crystals are halfway between earth and vegetation, much like the ancient Greek philosopher Thales believed that magnets have souls. Schopenhauer was fond of having poodles as pets. In one passage near the end of The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer speaks of sea lions and the way that they form a circle around their young. Whenever a pup tries to escape the circle, it gets a bite from the elders to teach it to stay where it is safe. Clearly he is drawing a comparison between the way sea lions and humans learn through suffering and restricting the will in themselves and others.
Schopenhauer argued against the use of the pronoun ‘it’ when referring to animals, as it lead to them being treated as mere objects. This is in complete disagreement with Descartes, who thought that animals were automata without sensation. While Descartes said that there is no greater a misleading mistake as to think that animals have souls, Schopenhauer wrote, “He who is cruel to living creatures cannot be a good man”. For Schopenhauer, animals live in a simpler, continuous present moment, much as Buddhism teaches. Animals are also incapable of the abstractions needed to harm others through elaborate technologies. Like Nietzsche, there is a romanticism for a simpler, more authentic past shared with Rousseau, the Transcendentalists, as well as ancient Chinese Daoists.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844 – 1900 CE), the great mustachioed one, came from a long line of protestant Lutheran preachers, five generations deep on his father’s side. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s father died when he was five years old, suffering both physically and mentally from debilitating insanity. Nietzsche as a boy wondered why both his father, a passionate preacher loved by the community, and older brother suffered and died for no apparent reason in spite of being Christian. 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 after a brief period of interest in mathematics. Nietzsche also studied and taught philology, a now forgotten subject similar to social and anthropological linguistics.
From 1869 Nietzsche was a professor of philology at the University of Basel, Switzerland’s third largest city bordering both France and Germany. He was close with many of his fellow professors, and frequently visited the composer Wagner and his wife Cosima in nearby Lucerne. At first Nietzsche revered Wagner, writing that he was one of the great geniuses of the age, and the two bonded over a love of Schopenhauer. Wagner read Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, and wrote to Nietzsche that Nietzsche was, along with his wife, the closest person by far to himself. Then Wagner became increasingly pro-Christian, German-nationalist, and antisemitic, and his music became full of flash and pomp. Nietzsche, quite opposed to traditional religion, nationalism, and antisemitism, wrote to Wagner imploring him to see the light. Wagner replied with silence, and the friendship ended, to Nietzsche’s great sorrow.
While Wagner adored Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), it was shunned by academics and ignored by the public. Nietzsche argued that the ancient Greeks were not simply rationalists as was often said in Nietzsche’s time and still is today. He argued that there were two opposite strains in Greek society, the Apollonian (order, reason and law) and the Dionysian (chaos, emotion and revolt). Apollo was the ancient Greek god of knowledge, and Dionysus was the god of ecstasy, intoxication and transformation. Recall that Socrates’ friend visited the Oracle of Apollo, where he learned that no one in Athens is wiser than Socrates, whom Nietzsche admired very much. Nietzsche suggests that revering both order and chaos is quite human, and societies that develop do not simply become reasonable but struggle to both restrain and escape restraint, to categorically understand and transcend categorical understanding, engaging in both science and art. In Hegelian terms, we seek the closure and stability understanding, while paradoxically seeking the openness and freedom of reason.
Nietzsche particularly admired Heraclitus, who he saw as closer to his own thinking than any other thinker. In Nietzsche’s philosophical autobiography, Ecce Homo (‘Behold the Man” in Latin, the words of Pontius Pilate as he reveals Jesus to the crowd who condemns him), Nietzsche writes, “In (Heraclitus’) proximity I feel altogether warmer and better than anywhere else…all this is clearly more closely related to me than anything else thought of date”. Nietzsche also identified Heraclitus’ thought with that of Schopenhauer, and quoted Schopenhauer in explaining the philosophy of Heraclitus. Nietzsche, like Heraclitus, enjoyed comparing humans to apes, to humble us and encourage us to evolve beyond what we are, writing, “If God created the world, then He made man His ape, to provide constant amusement during His overlong eternities.” Remember that Heraclitus wrote: “In everything we have attained the excellence of apes.”
Nietzsche became sick with stomach problems and other health matters, which would plague him for the rest of his life, and in 1879 he resigned his professorship. Nietzsche wrote that sickness was “the teacher of great suspicion”, and was well aware that, as a philosopher who argued that all philosophy is personal interpretation, he wrote in praise of strength and independence as a sickly individual. For the next ten years, until 1889, he traveled largely in France and Italy, seeking a warm climate in winters for his ailments, and wrote several books which are celebrated today but in their time almost entirely unnoticed. Nietzsche’s great works of this period include his Human All too Human, The Dawn, The Joyful Science (often translated “The Gay Science”, but as the famed translator Kaufmann notes the word ‘gay’ has a different meaning since the sixties, and it should be understood as merry, irreverent, and joyful), Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morals, The Twilight of the Idols (subtitled: How to Philosophize with a Hammer), and Ecce Homo. With Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he believed he had finally found his true voice and final philosophy, and the books that follow are considered his definitive work.
It was also during this period that Nietzsche befriended Paul Ree, who introduced him to Lou Salome, and the three traveled together while Nietzsche shared and developed his thinking with them until this friendship broke apart in 1883, the year he finished Thus Spoke Zarathustra and entered his later definitive period. There is a famous photo of the three friends with Nietzsche and Ree yoked to a cart, and Salome in the cart holding a whip, likely taken at a carnival. While Nietzsche had problems with women, confessing some of these opinions in his early Untimely Meditations, calling them “my truths” after warning against Kantian notions of objective truth, he wrote later to Ree in 1882 that Salome was the most intelligent person he had ever met, just as he had admired the intelligence of Wagner’s wife Cosima years before. After splitting with Ree and Salome, Nietzsche often complained that he could find no one who could understand his vision, and he longed to find people as or more intelligent and far seeing as himself.
Tragically, in 1889 at the age of forty five, just as he was beginning to gain fame and popularity, his books being read by the public and professors giving lectures about him, he had a period of great bliss and happiness, followed by a lapse into increasingly catatonic insanity. According to the famous story, Nietzsche saw a fallen horse being beaten in the street, and he threw his arms around its neck, weeping uncontrollably. After this, he said and wrote very little. In one letter to a friend, he claimed to be emperor, and was having all the antisemites shot.
While some opposed to Nietzsche’s skeptical thinking have argued that insanity was the result of his philosophy, others who embrace Nietzsche’s thought, including Karl Jaspers, one of Nietzsche’s first major interpreters and also a psychiatrist, have argued that Nietzsche’s eventual insanity was the result of a genetic condition he inherited from his father. Critics of Nietzsche have also suggested that his embrace of the horse is a realization of the failure of his own philosophy, as he had argued that pity is weakness, but he also argued that one should defend those who are weaker than oneself, while urging them to become stronger.
Nietzsche saw himself as a great awakening, as one who saw that reality is as one constructs and interprets it. Hegel argued that reality is both objective and subjective, a social construct, but Hegel tried to systematize subjectivity to reveal the structure of objectivity. Nietzsche saw himself as destroying the myth of the objective system, and he hoped that those who understood him would transform reality and themselves as they saw fit, having the courage to make leaps of faith once they see that it can be done. A passionate and entertaining author, Nietzsche makes bold judgements, often involving great praise or condemnation, but he was not making pronouncements about final answers, but demonstrating the ability to continue to question. This is why, as Nietzsche himself wrote, he had earned the right to be wrong as well as contradict himself in countless ways. Rather than defend truth as a final form, he had hoped to inspire a will to truth in others, a courage to plum the depths and kick the tires.
Karl Jaspers argued that self-contradiction was the fundamental ingredient in Nietzsche’s thought, and that Nietzsche seems to have two opinions about everything, which is the reason that socialists and individualists, scientists and artists, theists and atheists, and all other varieties of opinionated people find passages of Nietzsche that they lovingly quote to support their own views or bitterly condemn as supporting the opposition. Our capacity for understanding oversimplifies existence, and because noncontradictory understanding must remain on the surface great thinking often requires self-contradiction. Nietzsche’s thought is not a system, but a passion, a journey to new truths, a continuous self-overcoming and transformation. Jaspers said that to understand Nietzsche you must also be in motion, must be passionate, and must be willing to discover new things about yourself. Truth is something progressively revealed, but also truth is fundamentally ambiguous, able to be interpreted and reinterpreted in countless ways. These seem mutually exclusive, but only to that in us which demands final, closed answers.
Nietzsche did not want his texts to be read like newspapers, available to all regardless of ability. There is no one way, so find your own way, Nietzsche implores the reader. Nietzsche encouraged his readers to distrust him as he distrusts himself. Truth, in the individual or society, should not need to be defended, but rather put into conflict, forcing it to rise to the occasion or perish. Nietzsche wrote that if he was to pronounce a law that should not be broken, it would only be for the purposes of testing the individual who would be courageous enough to strengthen themselves by breaking it. Suffering, error and contradiction are necessary in every great development, which Nietzsche argued the great must embrace and cherish.
Nietzsche argued against the two extremes of morality and nihilism. He saw Europe as entering a crisis after the Enlightenment, in which all objectivity, authority and morality were called into question. Most would turn to morality and objectivity, giving their individuality to religion, science or politics without criticism in the hope of security. Others would lose all faith and motivation, turning to nihilism and renouncing the ability to believe and create.
Between these two extremes, Nietzsche argues, is the tightrope walker, the one who faces the void, the absence of complete security and certainty, and decides to create meaning, to give their life some meaning needing no authority other than their own individuality. Nietzsche distinguished himself from nihilists, saying he had never feared finding the way out of the hole of nothing and arriving at something.
Nietzsche valued creativity (‘Schaffen’, in German), and valued the individual’s ability to out-think the herd. Nietzsche at times said he was creating new values, new ideals, and at others that he was smashing all idols without replacing them with others. Both these are true. Nietzsche found values for himself, and for others who enjoyed them, but he wanted everyone to be free to find their own, and so permanent social idols were to be smashed and not replaced, but some ideal must be asserted by the individual to avoid the collapse into nihilism. Like for Descartes, skeptical questioning leads to positive results, but unlike for Descartes, Kant and later positivists, Nietzsche’s positive result is individual and unavoidably involved contradictions.
Nietzsche often compared humanity to animals, as did Schopenhauer. Nietzsche wrote that humanity is the most refined beast of prey, founding nations and making war, deceiving and trampling more effectively than any other beast, more courageous and cruel than any other animal, and when we cannot be beastial in act, we are beastial in thought. However, unlike all other animals, humanity shows a far greater capacity for change and evolution, if not so much in physiology then in thought and technology. Nietzsche viewed the human individual much as Schopenhauer viewed the world, as a will divided against itself, as an ecosystem of drives. Our various drives, which resemble those of every other human individual but also vary between any two individuals, help each other, fight each other, conceal each other, redirect each other, and invoke each other. There are many animals at the mental watering hole.
In order to view ourselves, we must construct a concept. Not only are systems of thought social constructs, as we learned with Hegel, but the self is a self-construct as well as a social construct. We must interpret ourselves just as we must interpret the world. We are constantly deceiving ourselves about ourselves, as we are about others and the world. We must view everything, including the thing which most matters to us, our own self, through “the fictions of language and logic”, as Nietzsche says. We forget and conceal in creating meaning. We are and are not ourselves, just as Heraclitus wrote. The selves and truths that we construct are both fiction and fact, intertwined. Nietzsche argued, influencing Freud, that suppressed drives find means of release. Often they turn inwards, and can become poisonous, life-denying rather than life-affirming. Unlike hunger, most drives can subsist and be satisfied through ideas, judgements, and dreams. Nietzsche hated revenge and pity. He saw both as terrible forms of repression, example of when our ability to limit ourselves becomes a blockage to progress and expansion.
Nietzsche feared the revenge of the herd, which he labeled with the French term, ‘resentiment’, resentment with an ‘i’ in the middle. The herd fear the new, individual and nonconformist, as these call objectivity and authority into question. We can always blame others, rather than ourselves, for our situation. Nietzsche saw German nationalism and antisemitism as examples of this in his own day, as well as the Christian persecutions of others. Great individuals do not need to join groups to gain strengths, nor blame other groups for their faults. Nietzsche, compared to other philosophers, was very honest about his faults and limitations.
While Nietzsche admired science, he saw scientism, the positivistic worship of science as objectivity and rationality, as a hindrance to science’s own progress. While Nietzsche argued that it is good to be acquainted with the sciences, this should pave the way towards renouncing objectivity, absolute knowledge and universal facts.
Nietzsche saw in the 1800s that science and politics are replacing religion, becoming the new dominant dogmatism, the institutions which make claims to objectivity. Nietzsche wrote, “He who is willing to dismiss God clings all the more firmly to the belief in morality”. Moralities justify themselves, and thus they endure, justify themselves as law and thus disguise the joy in causing pain, the vengeance of what is labeled impartial. Nietzsche believes that this is what has been understood for all of history but is rarely challenged. Cultures set themselves off from others through ideology, including the internal divisions of class and ethnicity. Claims of objectivity, morality, and universal rules are always directed from one group of people against another.
Nietzsche argued that Jesus, like himself, was actually an immoralist, teaching people to free themselves from judgement and authority, writing, “Jesus took sides against those who judge: he wished to be the destroyer of morality”. Nietzsche was well aware that when Jesus was asked which is the most important commandment, he said to love others, which is not one of the commandments, which can be interpreted as an overturning of the old law. Jesus also taught that enemies should be loved and outcasts embraced, an overturning of social convention. He said to the Pharisees, the religious and political leaders of his community, that because they thought they could see, they were blind.
Nietzsche wrote that he wanted humanity to become less universalized and more individual. Like Heraclitus, Nietzsche argued that some are superior, rising above others, but then foolishly choose to believe that they know the truth for everyone including themselves. Only the greater person, the ‘superman’ (Ubermensch in German), comes to realize that they do not need to know the truth for everyone but only construct and discover greater truth for themselves. Hopefully, this then inspires others. This elevates and enables humanity as a model to follow far more than the one who considers their superiority to be universal supremacy and objectivity. Authorities and experts fear failure, as this would threaten to dethrone their objectivity and supremacy, but the superman embraces failures and faults, and has earned the ability to learn from and own their imperfections. Sadly, some Nazis were interested in Nietzsche, and thought that Ubermensch could refer to a master race above morality, but Nietzsche hated antisemitism and did not believe that those who value themselves for belonging to a group were capable of great individuality.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885), the book which brought Nietzsche to his final definitive philosophy, is often quoted regarding the superman. 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 see 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 in the mountains, then goes down to the people. Zarathustra first encounters after going down out of cave a forest dweller (very Indian and Jain), who is avoiding people as people are too imperfect. 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 in this scene the tightrope walker is a mere spectacle that the people are not supposed to imitate. Zarathustra addresses the crowd:
I teach you the superman. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have you done to surpass him? All beings have so far created something beyond themselves, and you 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?
Once you were apes, and even yet man is more of an ape that any of the apes. Even the wisest among you is only a disharmony and hybrid of plant and phantom.
Truly, man is a polluted stream. One must be a sea, to receive a polluted stream without becoming impure.
(Note that Nietzsche does not say that the polluted stream is to be rejected or annihilated, but that the great individual, like the sea, becomes so wide that they can take in the polluted as part of themselves, very out of tune with Nazi ideology and history.)
Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the superman, a rope over an abyss, a dangerous crossing.
What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.
Beyond Good and Evil (1886) is also considered to be one of Nietzsche’s greatest books, one of the best expressions of his thought. In this book, Nietzsche attempts to push thought beyond categorical understandings of good and evil and of true and false to show the complexity of human meaning and life. He starts this work asking: Why do we want simple, perfect, absolute truth or suppose we can get it? Philosophy seems like it has barely started, but it has been assumed that something in us wants absolute truth and can acquire it. Nietzsche says that asking this question is perhaps the greatest risk. If we question our ability to gain truth, it becomes possible that we will lose all hope for truth and turn to nihilism, which Nietzsche argues is equally as dangerous to human creativity and the process of life as the belief in dogmatic objectivity. Typically, thinkers have assumed that there must be absolute pure truth apart from or hidden within the messy world and various human opinions. He writes:
This way of judging constitutes the typical prejudgment and prejudice which gives away the metaphysicians of all ages; this kind of valuation looms in the background of all their logical procedures; it is on account of this ‘faith’ that they trouble themselves about ‘knowledge’, about something that is finally baptized solemnly as ‘the truth’. The fundamental faith of the metaphysicians is the faith in opposite values. It has not even occurred to the most cautious among them that one might have a doubt right here at the threshold where it was surely most necessary. (BGE 2)
The falseness of a judgment is for us not necessarily an objection to a judgment…The question is to what extent is it life-promoting, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-cultivating, and we are fundamentally inclined to claim that the falsest judgments (which include the synthetic judgments a priori) are the most indispensable for us, that without accepting the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a constant falsification of the world by means of numbers, man could not live, that renouncing false judgments would mean renouncing life and a denial of life. To recognize untruth as a condition of life, that certainly means resisting accustomed value feelings in a dangerous way, and a philosophy that risks this would by that token alone place itself beyond good and evil. (BGE 4)
What provokes one to look at all philosophers half suspiciously, half mockingly, is not that one discovers again and again how innocent they are, how often and how easily they make mistakes and go astray, in short, their childishness and childlikeness, but that they are not honest enough in their work, although they all make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely. They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and doltish, and talk of ‘inspiration’), while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of ‘inspiration’, most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract, that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudices which they baptize ‘truths’, and very far from having the courage of the conscience that admits this, precisely this, to itself, very far from having the good taste of the courage which also lets this be known, whether to warn an enemy or friend, or, from exuberance, to mock itself. The equally stiff and decorous tartuffery of the old Kant as he lures us on the dialectical bypaths that lead to his ‘categorical imperative’ really lead astray and seduce, this spectacle makes us smile, as we are fastidious and finds it quite amusing to watch closely the subtle tricks of old moralists… (BGE 5)
Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir… Accordingly, I do not believe that a ‘drive to knowledge’ is the father of philosophy, but rather that another drive has, here as elsewhere, employed understanding (and misunderstanding) as a mere instrument. But anyone who considers the basic drives of man…will find that all of them have done philosophy at some time, and that every single one of them would like only too well to represent just itself as the ultimate purpose of existence and the legitimate master of all the other drives. (BGE 6)
There are still harmless self-observers who believe that there are ‘immediate certainties’, for example, ‘I think’, or as the superstition of Schopenhauer put it, ‘I will’, as though knowledge here got hold of its object purely and nakedly as ‘the thing in itself’, without falsification on the part of either the subject or the object…I shall repeat a hundred times, we really ought to free ourselves from the seduction of words! (BGE 16)
With regard to the superstitions of logicians, I shall never tire of emphasizing a small terse fact, which these superstitious minds hate to concede: namely, that a thought comes when ‘it’ wishes, and not when ‘I’ wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to say that the subject ‘I’ is the condition of the predicate ‘think’. IT thinks. (BGE 17)
In what strange simplification and falsification man lives! One can never cease wondering once one has acquired eyes for this marvel! How we have made everything around us clear and free and easy and simple! How we have been able to give our senses a passport to everything superficial, our thoughts a divine desire for wanton leaps and wrong inferences! How from the beginning we have contrived to retain our ignorance…and only on this now solid, granite foundation of ignorance could knowledge rise so far, the will to knowledge on the foundation of a far more powerful will: the will to ignorance, to the uncertain, to the untrue, not as its opposite, but as its refinement! Even if language, here as elsewhere, will not get over its awkwardness, and will continue to talk of opposites where there are only degrees and many subtleties of gradation…here and there we understand it and laugh at the way in which precisely science at its best seeks most to keep us in this simplified, thoroughly artificial, suitable constructed and suitable falsified world, at the way in which, willy-nilly, it loves error, because, being alive, it loves life. (BGE 24)
Take care, philosophers and friends, of knowledge, and beware of martyrdom, of suffering ‘for truth’s sake’, even of defending yourselves…as though ‘the truth’ were such an innocuous and incompetent creature as to require protectors! (BGE 25)
In all seriousness, the innocence of our thinkers is somehow touching and evokes reverence, when today they still step before consciousness with the request that it should please give them honest answers… A philosopher has nothing less than a right to ‘bad character’, as the being who has so far always been fooled best on earth. He has a duty to suspicion today, to squint maliciously out of every abyss of suspicion…Why couldn’t the world that concerns us, be a fiction?… Shouldn’t philosophers be permitted to rise above faith in grammar? (BGE 34)
One should not dodge one’s tests, though they may be the most dangerous. (BGE 41)
A man’s maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child at play. (BGE 94)
A people is a detour of nature to get to six or seven great men. Yes, and then to get around them. (BGE 126)
It was a shame, especially given this last line, that Nietzsche was used by some Nazis, thanks to the efforts of Nietzsche’s sister, to support their ideas of the 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, and he attacked both nationalism and racism as poisons that intoxicate the weak-minded. The Nazis called the Aryan race ‘supermen’ and other races the inferior sub-human ‘Untermensch’.
When Nietzsche uses the term ‘Ubermensch’, he means the one who overcomes both themselves and their own culture, certainly not those who embrace group identity to give meaning to their lives. Nietzsche’s superior person is the visionary thinker or artist, not a nation or race. Nietzsche called himself an ‘anti-anti-semite’, moved to Switzerland and renounced his German citizenship to walk alone high in the mountains. Surely this is how he would rather have been remembered.
In 1935, just after the Nazis had seized Germany and as some Nazis were using interpretations of Nietzsche to support their political movement, Karl Jaspers published his exhaustive book on Nietzsche’s philosophy to argue that Nietzsche was neither a nationalist nor a racist. That year he was dismissed from his professorship by the Nazi government.
Walter Kaufmann, the renowned Nietzsche scholar and translator, was himself Jewish and left Nazi Germany in 1939 for America. In his famous book on Nietzsche, Kaufmann shows that Nietzsche was aware that some antisemites were fond of his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, interpreting the Ubermensch, the superman, to be not the solitary individual but the German master race purified of Jews. At first Nietzsche laughed at their foolishness, but as things got worse it increasingly made him sick. Proto-Nazism was one of the major issues in Nietzsche’s life, the thing he despised in his sister as well as Wagner, whom he saw as a father figure. Hitler did visit the Nietzsche archive after repeated invitations from Nietzsche’s sister, on his way to Bayreuth, where Wagner had been part of the cultural center of the pro-Teutonic proto-Nazi culture. Hitler was inspired by Wagner, and knew very little about Nietzsche. Nietzsche advocated intermarriage between races, mixing races to create a greater variety of individuals, and he prized the “Good European”, who was not simply concerned with their own country and language. Wagner thought the French inferior to the Germans, unlike Nietzsche who often spoke highly of the French while condemning the foolishness of the Germans.
And, for your entertainment, Nietzsche memes: