Another favourite philosopher is Friedrich Nietzsche. He is a very complex man full of contradiction. While a son of a Lutheran Pastor, he rather rapidly became one of the fiercest opponents of religion. He saw this as a massive dumbing down of the population. Concentrating on the poor and telling them that life on earth was a temporary inconvenience as the real goal of religion was to promise the populous the heaven. He argues that Christianity supported the weak and consequently people became oppressed and could easily be manipulated. Many of the Christian values – that he rejects – are pushing human desires down. His concept of desires comes close to what Spinoza calls ‘conatus’, which in Latin means: effort; endeavour; impulse, inclination, tendency, undertaking, striving. The physical or mental drive of things to continue to exist and enhance itself. Christian values according to Nietzsche create a slave morality and makes the weakest in society even weaker. He argues that Christianity is obsessed with how bad the worse people are off. This creates a ‘slave morality’ based on oppression that leads to subversion and creates the notion of humans as a utility. Something Karl Marx at the same time was arguing against not just from a religious point of view but also from a capitalistic economic (and democratic model?) point of view. However Marx had a more teleological view of communism. He believed that once that system was in place it would provide the guiding hand that would ensure this new society. Capitalism has the invisible hand of the market in its credence and Calvinism preached pre-destination. Nietzsche instead would like to see a change to what he calls ‘master morality’, the morality of the strong-willed. According to Nietzsche, ancient Greek and Roman societies were grounded in master morality (as in the Iliad and Odyssey). He also saw the negatives of ‘master morality’. A revaluation of morals would – he thought – correct the inconsistencies in both master and slave moralities. However, for him master morality was far more preferable to slave morality.
While he declared that God was dead, he was terrified by the fact that there was no moral alternative and he foresaw that society would further descend into nihilism. He was shocked by what he saw around them (end 19th century). He was so negative that he predicted an unprecedented massive crisis within the 200 years from when he lived. Ahum!
Nietzsche saw the only way out if individual people were going to stand above the crowd. He first looked at the creative elements of humans, as tools to rise above the herd mentality. But he soon realised that this would not deliver the moral revolution he hoped for. He concluded that emotion and passion was often guided by self-interest. Rather than following the collective approach as promoted by religion he started to concentrate on the power that individual people have to create change. He studied powerful people all the way back the the Greek. From here he developed a new theory what he calls the Will of Power (Der Wille zur Macht). He writes for those who are invigorated by rational questioning. For example in relation to passion and emotion what are the underlying reasons of it, rather than just acting upon them. He very much puts the onus on people to individually create their own destiny. He believes that humanity only will evolve into better beings by individuals who are able to live with and overcome the many imperfections that we have. He also mentioned that in that process there is plenty of opportunity to enjoy life. He also tested this philosophy on himself as he suffered several personal tragedies as well as depression and ill health. For him happiness is the process of overcoming, the journey rather the end goal.
In parallel with this it is interesting to note that at the same time Sigmund Freud started to explore the self and gave the world the concept of identity (id), ego, and superego as layers within us all. According to Freud, id is the first part of the self to develop. The superego seeks to attain the ideal of a perfect ego. I can clearly see overlaps between Freud and Nietzsche deliberations.
In his famous book ‘ Thus spoke Zarahustra’ he used – in the German language – the term ‘Übermensch’ as the person or persons who can overcome the current state of human affairs (be it culture, upbringing, religion, etc.) and as such rises above the daily dread through his or her Will of Power. In the book the prophet comes down, proclaims God is dead and urges the people to change their lives. People do not need religion for this. He also mentions that the Will of Power is different for every individual, and also that humans will never be able the find the ultimate truth. . Spinoza looks more at society to achieve improvements; Nietzsche thinks far more individualistic. Both are using reason in their argumentation. For me, the combination of the thoughts of these two philosophers are a good way forward. Interestingly also in Jewish mystical philosophy there is this notion of evolving humanity that will be united in making the world a better place.
Contradictory, in Nietzsche’s view, religion does play a role. In Christianity this could be interpreted as the being of the world after the Final Judgement. But just to be clear Spinoza and Nietzsche (and, I) reject that this has something to do with forces outside what Spinoza calls Nature (the cosmos).
Interestingly Nietzsche absolutely does not believe in free will. He is what some call a material deterministic. He argues that humans cannot possibly be responsible for who we are, as we have no say in our makeup. He sees consciousness simply as a function of biological processes. Freud was also hinting to this as he started to approach consciousness from a more scientific angle. Interesting to note here as well is that while Freud’s science approach is questionable, modern science since his time has clearly uncovered a range of pointers in that direction.
Like Spinoza h Nietzsche argues that life is a chain of cause and effects, but Nietzsche goes as far to say that we have no influence at all in this process. But at the same time both philosophers also mention that we do have the power to influence these processes. So, there is a bit of contradiction in Nietzsche’s philosophy and scholars keep arguing about this. In a provocative way Nietzsche urges that humans must each become a god in ourselves and fill the vacancy left by the removal or demise of religion. This requires courage and creativity.
Unfortunately, his works have also been misused by the Nazis who have interpreted his philosophy as an endorsement for white supremacy. Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch” has nothing to do with a biological superman, he refers to our powerful mind and how we should use and develop that. The interpretation that the Nazis and white supremacist give to it would not be in his character. However, his angry and abrasive writing together with some rewriting of his work by sister Elizabeth who was a fan of the Nazis, helped in giving Nietzsche a bad reputation.
Nietzsche can also be seen as an early Posthumanist. He argued that humans were not behold to a God, they were only beholding to themselves. They create through their use of tools, art, and literature. I think that he would have been very interested in our current developments of AI and robots.
Nietzsche life overlapped with that of other great German thinkers such as the pessimistic atheist Arthur Schopenhauer, the revolutionary Karl Marx and the very first psycho analyst Sigmund Freud. There most certainly was cross fertilisation between the outputs of these great minds of those times.
As with all philosophers they have really good elements in the way they think. We are lucky that we can stand on the shoulders of all of them and pick and choose the really good elements of their work. Taken all of these philosophies together interesting pictures are starting to emerge on who and what we are, where it all fits in and what paths there are for going forward.