Friedrich Nietzsche, (1844-1900) grew up in a pious household, son of a Protestant pastor, and became a professor at Basel University when he was aged 24. Nietzsche was beguiled into studying philosophy after reading Schopenhauer (1788-1850) and subsequently developed his elitist concept of the “overman.”
Arthur Schopenhauer was a pessimist who believed the world to be a savage place. Eventually, Schopenhauer’s pessimism alienated Nietzsche, who decided life had to be lived fully.
As Iris Murdoch says in her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, “Schopenhauer does not share the ferocity of Nietzsche.” Certainly, Nietzsche was cruel, believing “The misery of a whole nation was nothing compared to the suffering of a great individual,” (Quoted by Bertrand Russell in History of Western Philosophy.)
Nietzsche was also influenced by Machiavelli (1469-1527), and Bertrand Russell points out that both men had an ethic for the pursuit of power that was distinctively anti-Christian, “…though Nietzsche is more frank in this respect.”
In his forties, Nietzsche became insane and died.
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Nietzsche’s Rejection of Christianity as a Slave Morality
In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Iris Murdoch asserts that the philosopher’s rejection of Christianity symbolises the “effacing of a concept of the divine with which we have travelled… through many transformation scenes.”
Nietzsche believes that Christianity, in fact, religion in general as well as much philosophy, is degenerate and degrading. He is appalled by concepts of repentance and redemption.
Nietzsche detests the way that Christianity upholds meekness and humility. The main will to power in Christianity is that of the priests, but in every other way, Christianity is beset with issues of poverty, mortification and guilt for sin.
Only the Great Can Create Values
In his article, Nietzsche, Our Contemporary, Eric Walters says, “He recognised with great clarity and impressive foresight, the most troubling and persistent problem of modernity, the problem of values.”
For Nietzsche, values are not subjective. Nietzsche’s philosophy is intensely elitist; he believes that values spring from power. Popular preferences do not apply, for values do not come fully-formed from the “human herd.”
(Bertrand Russell ascribes this tendency of a lust for power to fear itself, because those who do not fear others feel no need for ultimate power over them.)
God Is Dead
When Nietzsche made this apparently provocative statement in The Gay Science in 1872, he wasn’t actually denying the existence of God, explains Eric Walter. Although he was essentially an atheist, he was merely asserting that God no longer resided at the centre of things in Western society.
Thus, we were deprived of our Western value systems.
“If God does not exist, then objective moral values don’t exist either,” explains Eric Walter.
A Moral Code Without God? Bring on the Overman!
Nietzsche’s main objection to Christianity is, agrees Bertrand Russell, that it causes us to accept a “slave morality.” However, although he rejected our submission to the will of God, Nietzsche is comfortable with the idea that there should be “earthly artist-tyrants,” in other words, “overmen” or “supermen”
In The Gay Science, Nietzsche says: “… a madman cries out in the market place, “Where has God gone?… We have killed him… How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun.” (Quoted from Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, by Iris Murdoch.)
But – we must live according to a moral code, even though God might not be present, and Nietzsche’s “overman” will live and uphold this moral code.
(Humanists, on the other hand, would certainly maintain that the existence of God has no relevance to our moral codes and their validity in our lives.)
The Multi-Coloured Cow
According to Nietzsche, the ‘Death of God’ caused the weak Christian value system to collapse, leaving us with values garnered from many sources. Nietzsche describes this multiplicity of sources as “The Multi-Coloured Cow.”
Nietzsche struggled to find a resolution to this problem, but never fully succeeded.
Misunderstood – Nietzsche Never was a Fascist Sympathiser
Adolf Hitler was impressed with the idea of the “overman” or “superman” and swiftly latched onto it as a symbol for the proposed mastery of the German race. As a result, Nietzsche has been stuck with an undeserved legacy of alleged sympathy towards Fascism and the Nazis.
Jeremy Harwood describes Nietzsche in Philosophy – 100 Great Thinkers, as “one of the most misunderstood of philosophers of all time… He scorned German nationalism and was contemptuous of anti-Semitism in all its guises.”
Eric Walter says; “Nietzsche expressed contempt for anti-Semites and for propagandists of Germanic racial superiority. Modern man, mass man, whatever racial affiliation he may boast, is anathema to Nietzsche.”
However, while Nietzsche did not single out any individual race or creed of people, the fact remains that he was elitist about the masses, or the “common herd,” who were as nothing compared to his ideal – the “overman.”
Nietzsche simply disbelieved that ordinary, individual people know how to create values, although he never claimed to know exactly what form the overman would take, only that he would be an “individual,” and a “genius.”
Nietzsche: Contempt Toward Women
Neitzsche has an enormous contempt towards women.
According to Bertrand Russell, in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche says, “Women are not, as yet, capable of friendship; they are still cats, or birds, or at best cows.
“Man shall be trained for war and woman for the recreation of the warrior. All else is folly.”
Also, chillingly: “Thou goest to woman? Do not forget thy whip.”
Nietzsche also talks of women “who have only dancing and nonsense and finery in their minds” and “Woman has so much cause for shame; in woman there is so much pedantry, superficiality… ”
Iris Murdoch, herself a great philosopher, manages to be both objective and forgiving of the unique, extreme and cruel nature of Friedrich Nietzsche, when she says, referring to his work, Thus Spake Zarathustra,
“Many of Nietzsche’s beautiful writings express an extraordinary joy, and a sense of what is holy. Zarathustra, with his loved and loving animals is a saintly as well as a frightening prophet.”
Walter, Eric. Neitzsche, Our Contemporary. (2012). Philosophy Now. Accessed November 12, 2013.
Murdoch, Iris. Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. (1992). Penguin Books.
Russell, Bertrand. “Nietzsche,” History of Western Philosophy. (2004). Routledge.
Harwood, Jeremy. “Nietzsche,” 100 Great Thinkers. (2010). Quercus.© Copyright 2013 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past