The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900 ce) is one of the most controversial figures in the history of philosophy. He also has become one of its most diversely influential thinkers. He was never an “academic philosopher” either by education or by profession, and his influence in the philosophical community did not begin to be felt until long after his death in 1900, and then was clouded by the travesty of his appropriation by the Nazis. His productive life, moreover, was greatly hindered by debilitating health problems, and was cut lamentably short by a complete physical and mental collapse (from which he never recovered) in 1889, when he was but 44. Yet he left a rich legacy of challenges and contributions to philosophy, the importance and continuing relevance of which are becoming ever more apparent. He sought to revitalize and reorient philosophy, in ways intended to free it from stultifying aspects of its past, and attune it to the demands of the pressing tasks awaiting it.


Friedrich Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844, and was raised and educated in provincial Saxony (in what is now eastern Germany). His father was a Lutheran pastor in the tiny village of Röcken. Upon his father’s early death in 1849, his mother was obliged to relocate with him and his sister to the nearby town of Naumburg. It was during his childhood there that his lifelong loves of music and literature developed and deepened. His precocious scholastic excellence earned him a scholarship to the prestigious classics-oriented academy Schulpforta. While distinguishing himself there in his studies, Nietzsche also avidly pursued his musical interests, becoming a fine pianist and composing a considerable amount of music, including numerous Lieder and works for the piano. (His compositional efforts continued through his twenties.)

Nietzsche’s university education began in 1864 at Bonn, and continued at Leipzig, focusing upon classical studies. It was in Leipzig that he made two acquaintances that influenced him profoundly: Arthur Schopenhauer, through his masterwork The World as Will and Representation, and Richard Wagner, whose sister was a friend of the wife of one of Nietzsche’s professors. It was though his encounter with Schopenhauer’s thinking that Nietzsche’s philosophical interests were stimulated and initially shaped. His relationship with Wagner (which began in heroworship, developed into intimacy, and ended in estrangement and scathing polemic) was intimately bound up with the dramatic changes that marked the remainder of his personal and intellectual life.

Nietzsche so impressed his professors that he was called to a professorship in classical philology (the study of classical languages and literatures) at the Swiss university of Basel in 1869, at the age of only 24, before he had even received his doctorate. He resigned a mere ten years later, however, in 1879, owing both to the deterioration of his health and to his changing interests. His brief academic career was plagued by health problems, which were exacerbated by illnesses he contracted while serving as a volunteer medical orderly in 1870 during the FrancoPrussian war. This decade was certainly eventful, marked by the publication of The Birth of Tragedy (1872) and the four essays making up his Untimely Meditations (1874–6), and enlivened by his involvement with Wagner, by whom and whose operatic art The Birth of Tragedy was in part inspired. Yet it ended not only in his abandonment of philology, but also in his disillusionment with Wagner (for many reasons, including his growing antipathy to Wagner’s anti-Semitism, and his dawning sense that there was something dangerously pathological about that very art).

Following his early retirement Nietzsche left Basel, and began the nomadic boarding-house life he was to live for the rest of his active life. The Nietzsche of this period was the heir of Voltaire (to whom he dedicated his next book, Human, All Too Human, in 1878), relentlessly pursuing the project of radical enlightenment. This period also was one of dramatic intellectual development on his part, in the course of which he made the transition from classicist, Wagnerian enthusiast and cultural critic to philosopher. In his early writings Nietzsche had looked to the Greeks and to Wagner for guidance in discovering a way to cultural and spiritual renewal. He now recognized the inadequacy of his earlier assessment of the situation and of his first thoughts concerning possible responses to it, and set about to provide himself with the intellectual means of improving upon them. Among them were the analytical, critical, and interpretive tools and strategies that came to characterize his kind of philosophy. He had already begun to address these emerging concerns in Human, All Too Human, a wide-ranging volume of aphorisms published while he was still at Basel. He continued their exploration in the further aphoristic works of the rest of what he called his “free spirit” series, which had begun with that volume: two supplements to Human, All Too Human (1879 and 1880), Daybreak (1881), and the initial fourpart version of The Gay Science (1882).

Only six years of productive life then remained to him. During the first three of these six years, moreover, Nietzsche published only his remarkable literary-philosophical experiment Thus Spoke Zarathustra (in four parts, 1883–5). All of the other writings he produced, from Beyond Good and Evil (1886) to his autobiographical Ecce Homo (written at the end of 1888, just prior to his collapse), were written in the remarkable last three years (1886–8). They further included an expanded second edition of The Gay Science and On the Genealogy of Morals (1887); and The Case of Wagner, Twilight of the Idols, and a final diatribe against Christianity, The Antichrist (or Antichristian, as its title might better be translated), all written – along with Ecce Homo – in 1888. Nietzsche’s writings from this period also include a great mass of notes in his notebooks, a small selection of which were published in his name after his death under the title The Will to Power. The significance of this material is controversial. Much of it is very rough, tentative, and experimental; and it was never intended for publication. Yet Nietzsche did write it; and its interest is enhanced by the fact that it contains much more material relating to some topics than is to be found in the writings he published or completed.

Nietzsche’s initial impetus toward philosophy grew out of his deepening concern with a problem going to the very core of our entire Western culture and civilization. It seemed clear to him that traditional ways of understanding ourselves, the world, and value were on the wane. Culturally, they were losing their capacity to convince and sustain; and intellectually, they were proving incapable of withstanding rigorous scrutiny. Indeed, by commanding truthfulness and valorizing a readiness to sacrifice other interests to it, they had sown the seeds of their own destruction. Their demise now seemed imminent.

This was Nietzsche’s version of Wagner’s tragic-operatic “Twilight of the Gods” (“Götterdämmerung,” the name of the final part of his celebrated Ring tetralogy). As in the Wagnerian case, that demise seemed to Nietzsche to be well warranted as well as inevitable – yet also shattering, even if the absolutes and ideals that we are going to have to do without are only false idols. It is their “twilight” in which he believed we now live. (So he punningly entitled one of his last books “Götzendämmerung,” “Twilight of the Idols,” signaling both a Wagnerian theme and his own surpassing of the original.) He was deeply concerned about the void that the impending “death of God” (as he came to call it) would leave. By the end of his Basel years he was already convinced that neither modern science and Enlightenment rationalism nor modern art and Wagnerian romanticism would be able to fill this void; and this issue gradually came into focus for him as the phenomenon of nihilism, the problem of its advent, and the task of its overcoming.

Schopenhauer had proclaimed the “will to live” to be irrational, and life to be pointless striving and suffering; and he had concluded that a life-denying “No” to all “willing” is the course of wisdom. Nietzsche took Schopenhauer’s bleak “pessimism” to be but a harbinger of something even more dangerous (“the danger of dangers”): the more radically nihilistic conviction of the utter senselessness and valuelessness of life and the world in general. And precisely because Nietzsche considered it to be an inevitable and powerful temptation in the aftermath of “the death of God,” he believed that it would be catastrophic for humanity if no life-affirming antidote to it capable of withstanding all disillusionment could be found. The diagnosis of this predicament, and the quest for such a way out of it, thus became his passion and mission. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra he gave expression to the main elements of the reinterpretation and revaluation of human life that were his response to this challenge, in a form intended to make them accessible to anyone in need of such a response and ready for it.

Coming up with such a response was by no means easy for Nietzsche, because he was convinced of the untenability of any disguised as well as overt version of the “God-hypothesis,” in all of its religious and metaphysical variations involving the postulation of some sort of absolute reality transcending, underlying, or governing the course of this life and world. And he took their demise (or preclusion) to mean the beginning of the end of all interpretive and evaluative schemes depending upon anything of the kind. His preferred way of disposing of such notions and associated ways of thinking was by way of what might be called their “genealogical subversion.” This strategy involves showing that they and their appeal can very plausibly be accounted for in all-too-human terms, and arguing that there is no good reason to suppose there is anything more to them than that – thereby fatally undermining their credibility and viability.

Breaking the grip of such notions upon our thinking, however, requires more than merely providing this sort of critique. It also involves freeing ourselves of our addiction to absolutes, which prompts us to seek others in place of those we have formerly embraced but can no longer take seriously – and which sets us up to be devastated by their absence when we finally comprehend that there are none to be found. Nihilism is the ultimate consequence of this addiction; and so, Nietzsche contends, liberation from this addiction is essential to nihilism’s overcoming.

But even that liberation by itself will not be enough. The overcoming of nihilism for Nietzsche further requires the finding of a way and means to a new “affirmation of life” unmediated by any dependence upon transcendence, and in radical contrast to Schopenhauer’s condemnation of life and the world as he understood them. It is in this connection that Nietzsche introduces and chiefly employs a number of his most highly charged images. The figure of the “overman,” for example, is emblematic of his conception of the qualitative “enhancement of life” (in deliberate contrast to any other-worldly ideal) as the new this-worldly locus of value. This image signifies the “affirmation of life” enhanced through the creative transformation and transfiguration of the merely natural, in ways endowing it with artistic worth and aesthetic significance.


Another such image is the idea of “eternal recurrence” – the conception of things forever recurring as they now occur. While Nietzsche experimented in his notebooks with the possibility of taking this idea seriously if construed very literally, it functions for him primarily as a supreme test of one’s ability to affirm life and the world as they fundamentally are (and will continue to be), rather than as one might wish them to be or become. Can one say Yes to the idea of one’s life and everything else recurring eternally? And could one do so even if they were to recur precisely as they have occurred? If so, one’s affirmation of life would show itself to be dependent upon nothing merely imaginary or ideal, and so secure against all disillusionment.

A further case in point is Nietzsche’s concept of “amor fati” or “love of fate” (replacing Spinoza’s “amor dei” or “love of God”). It signifies the attainment of the completely “de-deified” and radically “this-worldly” reorientation of affirmation he envisions. To achieve this “Dionysian” stance involves envisioning all that one is, does, and can become, as a part of a world in which necessity reigns and there are no metaphysical “free wills” – yet (crucially, for Nietzsche) which itself engenders the redeeming possibility of creativity. And it is precisely this saving grace that makes possible the embrace of what is thus envisioned, and so is the key to the Nietzschean notion of a fundamental “life-affirmation” that is beyond all naivete and illusions.

Nietzsche’s kind of philosophy is avowedly and unabashedly interpretive. Indeed, he contends that all human thought has this character. It always involves selectivity, perspective, and convention, and reflects varying interests and valuations. Philosophical thinking is no exception. It does not follow from this, however, that all interpretations are on a complete epistemic par with each other – namely, that of having no genuinely cognitive significance. And Nietzsche is quite clearly convinced that, in at least some contexts, prevailing interpretations can be improved upon, and comprehension can be deepened and refined. This is a significant part of what he calls upon the “new philosophers” he envisions to do, in his “Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future” (the subtitle of Beyond Good and Evil); and it is something he himself quite evidently sought to do, with respect to matters as diverse as morality, art, and our own emergent psychological, social, and intellectual human reality.

Perhaps no part of Nietzsche’s thought has given rise to more confusion than his thinking with respect to truth and knowledge. Some of his comments have been taken to amount to a radical repudiation of the very possibility of anything deserving of either name. Yet he also makes much of the importance of truth, truthfulness, knowledge, and intellectual rigor and integrity, in contexts such as those of scientific and philosophical inquiry. At times he makes much of the contingent, artificial, and merely conventional and perspectival character of most of what passes for truth and knowledge in various human contexts, and of the impossibility of coming up with anything that would satisfy the criteria of truth and knowledge to which many philosophers from Plato to Descartes and Kant and beyond have subscribed. On other occasions, however, he draws attention to the problematic character of these criteria, explores alternatives to them, and attempts to give the notions of truth and knowledge a new and more fruitful lease of life, in terms of something like aptness and doing (greater or lesser) justice to something with ample warrant.

Indeed, while insisting that “truth” and “knowledge” as philosophical purists and absolutists have long conceived of them are myths, Nietzsche came to understand and appreciate that there are many contexts in which it makes good and important sense to retain and employ these notions, notwithstanding all relevant considerations pertaining to contingency, conditionality, conventionality, and perspective. In fact, our ability to shift perspectives actually can enable us to come to understand a good deal about ourselves and our human world. It remains an open question, however, how far such comprehension may be extended, beyond human affairs and into the larger world in which human life goes on. Some phenomena (for example, sports, arts, morals, politics) have the character they do because they have come to be as they are in the course of human events; and so there is no reason to suppose there is anything more to them than we are capable of tuning in on. And in such cases it should be possible for us to attain perspectives that accord sufficiently with them to do something approaching justice to them.

The ubiquity of “perspective” is thus no barrier to the comprehension of what we have made, or to that which is significantly akin to it. And this suffices to reconcile Nietzsche’s “perspectivism” with at least a modest (but significant) sort of cognitivism, to which he also shows himself to be committed. Here the notions of humanly attainable truth and knowledge can certainly be salvaged, and significantly employed. The more dubious the supposition of the consonance of attainable human perspectives with the character of some domain, however, the more problematic any ventured interpretation of it becomes.

Nietzsche’s proposed interpretation of life and the world in terms of “will to power” is problematic for precisely this reason, as he himself was aware. This has led some to question the seriousness and nature of his commitment to it. Yet he does advance this interpretation, and does so with evident cognitive purport, particularly where human and other forms of life are concerned. He is well disposed to the various interpretations of aspects of life and the world emerging and developing under the aegis of the maturing natural and biological sciences, for example – at least as far as they go. But he contends that the general scientific world-interpretation in terms of dynamic quanta, arrayed in systems and fields of force, is incomplete. And he proposes that it can be improved upon by construing all such phenomena in terms of power relationships, and by supposing all dynamic quanta to be inherently disposed to enter into such relationships.

“Will to power” is Nietzsche’s name for this basic and ubiquitous assertive disposition, typically manifesting itself in ordering transformation. The conception of power figuring in this interpretation and hypothesis refers not merely to the more obvious forms of domination and control, but also to a whole range of much more subtle forms of the attainment of mastery and of supremacy. “Power” for Nietzsche is fundamentally a matter of the imposition of some new pattern of “ordering relations” upon forces not previously subject to them. It is one of his more astute psychological insights that frustration in the attempt to achieve one sort of power commonly leads to the development of another, or of alternate forms of competition in which power is both differently won and differently measured. In extending the idea of “will to power” to the interpretation of life and the world more generally, as he clearly was inclined at least tentatively and experimentally to do, he was venturing to be something of a philosophical biologist and cosmologist as well.

It is human life more specifically, however, and our human nature, variability, and possibility, to which Nietzsche devotes most of his attention. In reinterpreting our humanity in a thoroughly naturalistic manner, he contributes significantly to the development of a philosophical anthropology sensitive to its biological, social, and historical dimensions. His common association with Kierkegaard and the existentialists has obscured this importantly different interest and manner of pursuing it. His concern focuses above all on evaluative considerations relating to the quality of human life and its possible enhancement or decline. He considers it imperative, however, to understand the sort of creature we have come to be, in the course of our biological and historical development, in order to know what we have to work with. And this means coming to appreciate both the “all too human” features of ordinary humanity and the more exceptional human possibilities that hold the key to any attainable sort of higher humanity.

While Nietzsche’s thinking with respect to our humanity remained tentative and unsystematic to the end, there can be no doubt about its generally naturalistic contours. We are a kind of creature among others that has evolved on this planet, he insists, and have no loftier origin; but we have come to be significantly different from others owing to certain peculiarities in our evolutionary history, in which social factors have played a significant role. All human intellectuality, spirituality, and psychological reality is the result of this process and of the contingencies that have occurred along the way.

Human beings further differ in many ways that matter, Nietzsche contends, both by nature and owing to what occurs in the course of their lives, affecting the ways in which their various capacities are (or are not) developed and directed. Human worth, for him, is best conceived in terms of the cultivation of abilities that are not shared in equal measure, and more specifically in terms of the attainment of various forms of excellence in which such abilities are employed and expressed, with a premium upon creativity (rather than rationality, morality, individuality or subjectivity). Cultural life is the arena of such activity, with art as its paradigm; and the enhancement of life is fundamentally a matter of its ongoing creative transformation. The distinction Nietzsche draws between “higher” and “lower” forms of humanity is to be understood primarily along these lines, and thus in terms of differences in ways in which human beings turn out rather than merely start out. The raw materials of Nietzschean “higher humanity” may be biological, and may be unevenly distributed; but the attainment of it depends upon the manner of their cultivation, refinement, and expression.


Nietzsche’s “revaluation of values” is thus closely linked to his reinterpretation of life in general and of human life in particular. If there is nothing beyond this life in this world that can serve as a standard or basis for value and value-determinations (as Nietzsche supposes), then value too must be “naturalized,” and understood in relation to something having to do with life. Value must reflect the basic character of life, the requirements of flourishing life, the general idea of the enhancement of life, or the sort of thing that the enhancement of life involves – and in Nietzsche’s hands it winds up reflecting all of these things at different junctures in his thinking. The basic character of life as “will to power” sets the context for the identification of the artistically conceived enhancement of life as the locus of value, with creativity as its watchword. When Nietzsche undertakes his “revaluation” of things commonly valued either positively or negatively, it is with the question in mind of whether they are not merely life-preserving but life-enhancing – and if so, for what or whom, in what respects, under what circumstances, and with what larger consequences.

The things Nietzsche subjects to revaluation are numerous and diverse, ranging from Christianity and other religions to various types of art, science, philosophy, politics, morality, and putative virtues and vices. He vehemently attacks Christianity, for example, particularly in the form it was given by St Paul, less for the absurdity of its interpretation of life and the world than for the harmfulness to human flourishing of that interpretation and associated values. He further is convinced that people tend to attach much too much importance to pleasure and pain and to happiness and suffering alike; and that such traits as cooperativeness and pity are commonly overvalued as much as self-assertiveness and competitiveness are underappreciated.

Nietzsche is particularly critical of the sort of “herd-animal” morality that seemed to him to have triumphed in the modern Western world. He takes this type of morality – with its emphasis on conformity, equality, self-denial, and the alleviation of suffering – to owe much in its “genealogy” to the kind of fearful, resentful, leveling “slave morality” that was the natural antithesis to the self-affirming and self-assertive moralities of erstwhile barbarian “masters.” He even combatively styles himself “immoralist” and “beyond good and evil” as well as “antiChristian.” But the fundamental thrust of his moral philosophy is not against any and all forms of morality. Rather, it is in the direction of a naturalistic moral theory, advocating moralities sensitive to human differences of circumstances, requirements, and capacities, and attuned to a strongly affirmative conception of human flourishing and “lifeenhancement.”

Nietzsche’s influence upon subsequent European philosophy has been profound. Together with Kierkegaard, he was one of the main inspirations of the central figures in German and French existential philosophy (Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus). Their interest in him focused more upon his repudiation of traditional religious, moral, and metaphysical ways of thinking, however, than upon the naturalistic reinterpretation of human life and approach to evaluative and normative matters to which he himself was inclined. In the latter respects his lead was followed by others, who sought to mount a philosophical–anthropological counter-movement to existential philosophy (Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner, Arnold Gehlen) in the second quarter of the century, and some of those associated with the Frankfurt School of critical social theory (Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas). A radically postmodernist interpretation of his thought also figured importantly in the emergence and development of poststructuralism in France (Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and others). During the last quarter of the twentieth century an appreciation of his thinking began to develop in Anglo-American analytical philosophical circles as well. It is arguable, however, that none of these appropriations has done justice to him, and that his day is yet to come.

Further reading

Key Theories of Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche Critique- European Culture

Philosophical Influences on Poststructuralism

Clark, Maudemarie: Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
Danto, Arthur C.: Nietzsche as Philosopher (New York: Macmillan, 1965).
Hayman, Ronald: Nietzsche: A Critical Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).
Kaufmann, Walter: Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 4th edn (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974).
Nehamas, Alexander: Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985).
Schacht, Richard: Nietzsche (London: Routledge, 1983).

Writings Kritische Gesamtausgabe: Werke, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, over 30 volumes to date (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1967–).
The Birth of Tragedy (1872), trans. Walter Kaufmann, with The Case of Wagner (1888) (New York: Vintage, 1966).
Human, All Too Human, first published in three installments (1878–80), subsequently in two volumes (1886), trans. R. J. Hollingdale, intro. Richard Schacht (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
The Gay Science (1882; 2nd expanded edn 1887), trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974).
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, first published in four installments (1883–5), trans. Walter Kaufmann, in The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Viking, 1954).
Beyond Good and Evil (1886), trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1966).
On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, with Ecce Homo (New York: Vintage, 1967).
Twilight of the Idols (1889), trans. Walter Kaufmann, in The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Viking, 1954).
The Antichrist (completed 1888; first published 1895), trans. Walter Kaufmann, in The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Viking, 1954).


Categories: Literary Theory, Literature

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1 reply

  1. The god complex to need replacing, seems a shame how well psychology has stepped in. I enjoyed your writing. Very interesting.

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