Nietzsche’s mark on the world could be summed up in three not-so-simple philosophies of thought: Eternal Recurrence, Übermensch and Will to Power–of course, we’ll try to simplify. Thereby making these ideas, or ideologies, understandable and having said that, we could filter Nietzsche’s final focal lesson down to one singular statement that he commonly used and was attributed to originate with the eloquent Greek, philosophizing poet named Pindar, “Become what you are!”
In order to begin understanding Nietzsche we should go back to his early years—learn about who he was in youth. If our purpose in reading and writing is to learn how better to think, than Nietzsche is a challenging starting point—for his thinking drove many away from him, and him from many (including the likes of Richard Wagner, the composer and his wife, Cosima) but it is no less profound or fundamental in allowing us to learn from reading and writing why we think the way we do—and why Nietzsche thought they way he did—and why so many misunderstood what he was saying in his masterful volumes—even his own sister misunderstood Nietzsche and did him, and his work, great harm by tainting it with the espousal of friendship to the Nazi’s Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler—long after Nietzsche’s death in 1900.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was the firstborn son arriving on October 15, 1844 in Röcken, Saxony to a Lutheran pastor and his wife. He was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father, but when Friedrich was five years of age, his father fell and died of the brain injury soon after. The family moved a year later to Naumberg. In his early school years, he was known as “the little pastor,” and he loved poetry and music. Growing up, he was surrounded by the feminine—he grew up living with his mother, sister, grandmother and two aunts. At 14, in 1858, he acquired a scholarship at an austere Lutheran private school where he first began his career of philology—the love of literature. He excelled at Ptorta, the school, leaving in 1864 at the age of 20. He thanked “God and the King,” indicating none of the revolutionary thinking that would become his over the course of his life time.
Moving to the University of Bonn, to study theology (the study of God) and philology (the study of literature), Nietzsche soon became disillusioned by religion and studied the works of Schopenhauer. However, this first professor of “will,” was extremely negative and forged the ideas of ascetically enduring life till it’s tragic, conclusive death. Nietzsche said, “Schopenhauer preaches asceticism and the denial of life. I shall teach the joyful affirmation of life!” Personally, I too, recall my own disfavour for the negative fate of serving a deaf god and hoped to make life joyful and rich—the pursuit of happiness—these are the affirmations of a young man with higher ideals for his own future.
In 1867, twenty-three year old Friedrich was sent to war and served a very short stint in the King’s army. After an incident with his horse he suffered a chest injury, and was dismissed from service. He began to think about academia and stated to a friend in a letter, “All writing is useless that does not contain a stimulus to activity.” A paradoxical statement when one realizes how weakly Nietzsche was over the course of his life. Previous essays that he’d written became prominent and the University of Basel wished Nietzsche to become a Professor of Philology. He was flattered and accepted the position, becoming the youngest, at 24, to ever receive such a position at the institution—but leaving after a mere ten years. He would state, “No entirely radical truth is possible,” referring to discovering truth in the life of a university academician. His health, always tenuous, was a good portion of the reason for his resignation. His disillusionment with the powers that be theologically and academically continued to grow. One should remember that Nietzsche had profound confidence in his own mind—he knew early on that his life’s writings were likely to be misunderstood, but one day his opus works would find an audience and his concepts of truth, morality and science would be heard as he intended. He said, “My time has not yet come; some are born posthumously!” Nietzsche knew he was well ahead of his time.
From 1879 to 1888, Nietzsche saw his most productive literary period. His eyesight troubled him and he tried working with typewriters of the day, the Hansen Writing Ball—a typewriting instrument of that era was one of his adventures. Peter Gast, a former student, became a kind of private secretary, even bowing to Elisabeth—Nietzsche’s sister, a constant thorn—when working on publishing works posthumously for his mentor. Gast was a musician named Heinrich Köselitz, whom Nietzsche renamed to the German term for guest or visitor.
Friedrich and Elisabeth would quarrel and reconcile constantly—she would be the instrument in the delivery of Nietzsche’s legacy, but not a good one. She was a strong Anti-semite—a position that Nietzsche could not hold. The racial hatred of the German society would ultimately alienate him to the point of demanding he was not of German birth, but rather, Polish nobility. “I feel kinship only with the most cultivated French and Russian people, but not at all with the so-called distinguished elite among my own countrymen, who judge everything from the principle: ‘Germany above everything’…” This statement alone indicates that Nietzsche was German (Prussian), but so disillusioned by the mindset of the German ego that he would shun it and claim ownership of Polish descent. He’d rid himself of any kind of passport April 17, 1869—remaining stateless to the end of his days.
The Lonely, Poetic Philosophizing Philologist
Nietzsche was a very lonely man, and even though he led a very social life through literary discussions, musical appreciation and academic intercourse in his first three decades, Nietzsche seemed never able to separate himself from his lonely pursuit of understanding—perhaps a modern example might be Stephen Hawking. Both men were/are challenged to maintain good health but each one has, or had, a very solitary journey to discovery.
Nietzsche’s solitude was self-prescribed as he continuously had fallings out when reaching conclusions of ideology in music, meaning of life, philosophy, politics, religion, philology, racial bias, etc.
So where do we put Nietzsche in the bookshelves of history’s library?
Let’s look at some of the titles of his works. Human, All Too Human; Beyond Good and Evil; The Gay Science (meaning The Joy of Science); The Anti-Christ; Thus Spoke Zarathustra; The Will to Power; Ecce Homo ( the Latin words used by Pontius Pilate in the vulgate translation of the John 19:5 verse, when he portrays Jesus scourged on the crucifix with a crown of thorns—the King James version of the bible says, “Behold the Man.”) are but the most fundamental works of the poetic, philosophizing philologist. His last work revealing his most common diatribe, “Become what you are.” We must remember this point. How could a man so obsessed with changing the world he was living in, rejecting even the artists, be writing about religion with such zest, blasphemous prose, and not be somehow moved by spirit? Perhaps, a spirit of creation demanding an escape from false structures in the institutions of faith present then—and now?
We could look at Nietzsche’s life and see his burgeoning capacity to hope become a lengthy slow, sinking into the reality of existence at his time—is it not very similar, for many, in our time? However, it is important to realize that Nietzsche was an optimist—not a nihilist. We could see a young man brought down by his horse to return to literary discourse, and constant discontent, trying to enhance, and change, the establishments of intelligence, theological belief, the arts and political powers. Nietzsche seemed consumed in the pursuit of creating a more intelligent, tolerant human culture—one that rose to creative excellence and originality. For him, the cultures of the day only copied what had come before. He could well have stated, “We think, therefore, we should become.” Instead of looking to the past Roman, Greek or Judaeo cultures for inspiration—Nietzsche wanted to see original thinking, change, growth and expansion of the human societies of the planet.
Nietzsche wanted the youth of the nations to unlearn what was being swallowed through traditional patriarchal and matriarchal structures. He said, “Only then can we produce our own cultures. Rather than follow the cultures of the past swallowing them whole like a crocodile swallows an antelope, leading to complete inertia. The goal of humanity cannot lie at the end of time, but only in its highest specimens.”
The dilemma we have with Nietzsche is that so much of his work unveils itself in the realm of fictional or poetic prose—he’s hard to understand—but he was so thorough in his historical education that we should attempt to be no less thorough in reaching conclusions of truth, morality and science.
Was he completely atheistic? Was he delusional? Was he a new messiah for an intellectual age? Or was he a German philosopher that has no relevance to our time, our place, our universe?
Let’s look at his three big theories. Übermensch, the Will to Power and Eternal Recurrence. Will to Power began with Nietzsche’s disgust with Schopenhauer’s “will to live.” The “will” doesn’t exist as an entity—it is our function to control and gain power—which can never be fulfilled so, therefore, we are destined to our sad fate—physical death—amor fati (love of destiny). “The purpose of the void is to realize we are void of purpose,” was a nihilistic introductory quote of the philosopher. However, Nietzsche combines his Eternal Recurrence theory with Will to Power with this quote;
“My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (its will to power) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on.”
Nietzsche is trying to display the balance of natural existence—is it nihilistic? No, he did not espouse this negative view of human existence, but neither did he espouse the master/slave concepts of modern Christianity—or any faith—or the linear end game of an “end of days,” like the Judaeo, Christian and Islamic time lines. He thus moved on to the next theory of Übermensch. A kind of future human being that would evolve into responsible, practical, tolerant, non-religious, evolved examples of human perfection—as grandiose as this idea of a better class of human development may have sounded it fit hand in glove with the “survival of the fittest,” and “eugenics” (genetic selection) that was rising in the scientific, and political, minds of the day. This is not what Nietzsche was discussing—his was a discussion of present human kind as a bridge to the next realm of “super” human existence—not like the comic book hero, but rather cerebrally, and culturally, enhanced mankind—unbound by foolish superstitions of good and evil, of absolute truths delivered by uncertified “prophets.”
It was not physically, that Nietzsche was discussing the evolution of humankind alone. And it was not an ideology of racial segregation or prejudice of any kind—it was a cerebral foretelling of metaphysical advancement in which the evolution of humankind was raising from the primordial ooze of superstition, dogmatism and unenlightened thought patterns and archaic traditions.
Übermensch may be the most controversial of his theories because it was through misuse, and misinterpretation, of all his theories that his name became connected with the Nazi regime—along with the help of his uneducated, anti-Semitic sister, Elisabeth—even though, he wished no part of this thing, this darkness, that had its genesis in his lifetime, and was breeding throughout the Germanic society with help from Wagnerian operas, societal philosophers and political/social elements. Remember, Hitler wasn’t born until April 20, 1889—young Adolph would only be eleven at the time of Nietzsche’s death. Otto von Bismarck was the hated king of Nietzsche’s life.
The Superman—comic book hero or Über race of Hitler’s Reich—isn’t what the conceptual realization of Übermensch is about in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. We have to remember that Nietzsche was completely against the structures of the day—God was dead, because the structures of faith, the power mongers had done away with him, he wasn’t at play in the fields of civilization. Humanity had moved on to a position of mortal control, in which, God was dead. This era of technological advancement, industrialization, invention and nationalism was creating a world of possibility—but there were cracks in the structure.
The bastardization of Nietzsche’s ideas by the Nazi regime would not have been received kindly by the man—much like Darwin’s name being placed on, or beside, the biological results of attempted eugenics or social Darwinism—wouldn’t be appreciated by Darwin.