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In the months before his final descent into madness, Friedrich Nietzsche made the following declaration and prediction: “I know my destiny. Someday my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous, a crisis like no other on earth, the profoundest collision of conscience, a decision conjured up against everything that had been believed, required, and held sacred up to that time. I am not a man; I am dynamite.” 

And so he was. The man who practiced and perfected the art of “philosophizing with a hammer,” who pronounced that “God is dead,” who called on his readers to follow him in exploring regions “beyond good and evil,” who gleefully declared himself the Antichrist, who unconditionally denounced human equality and democracy, who claimed that “a great war hallows any cause,” who praised the “blond beast” who “might come away from a revolting succession of murder, arson, rape, [and] torture with a sense of exhilaration and emotional equilibrium, as if it were nothing but a student prank”—this man was indeed explosive. One might even say that today, over one hundred years after his work was discovered by European intellectuals, Western culture has yet to come to terms with the fallout produced by the detonation of his most volatile ideas. 

In the epilogue to his Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, Rüdiger Safranski catalogues the philosopher’s influence, and it reads like a comprehensive intellectual history of the twentieth century. The irrationalist vitalism that helped to inspire fascism; artistic movements from symbolism to art nouveau, expressionism, and Dada; Ernst Jünger’s ecstatic militarism; Heideggerian existentialism and antimodernism; the Counter-Enlightenment critical theory of the postwar Frankfurt School; the violent surrealism of Georges Bataille and, through him, the varying postmodern irrationalisms of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida; the neopragmatic conviction that “truth is an illusion that helps us cope with life”—all of these and many other radical cultural, intellectual, and political movements descend directly from Nietzsche. They are his legacy to our time. 

For some—primarily those who take their intellectual bearings from outside the thoroughly Nietzscheanized humanities departments of the modern university, as well as the handful of conservative dissenters within them—there will be little in this legacy of atheistic immoderation to admire. But however we judge the often decadent productions of twentieth-century high culture, Nietzsche himself continues to merit the most serious attention, and not merely because of his considerable influence. The fact remains that Nietzsche is one of the most brilliant philosophers and prose stylists in the history of Western letters. His formidable challenge to so much that so many of us continue to hold dear simply cannot be ignored by thoughtful men and women. 

But how ought we to approach the task of evaluating Nietzsche’s work? The answer is far from clear. For Nietzsche is a deeply contradictory thinker, and glancing at the dozens of books devoted to his thought in the philosophy section of any good bookshop, it can seem that there are, in fact, many Nietzsches. Most scholars have assumed that his work amounts to a defense of radical right-wing politics, but many today think him more compatible with the far left. His books contain numerous misogynistic passages, but that hasn’t discouraged feminists from claiming to find support for their program in his ideas. Some think his teaching is meant to inspire public actions, but many others have seen in his writing an aesthetic call to private cultivation and creativity. Competent scholars have declared that his work is hopelessly incoherent, while at least one leading philosopher has claimed that Nietzsche was the “last great metaphysician in the West.” And then there are those who think that Nietzsche’s texts can and should mean anything their readers want them to. This abundance of interpretations makes any attempt to render an informed and comprehensive judgment of his work exceedingly difficult. 

Thanks to Safranski’s biography, that task has now become considerably easier. As in his 1994 biography of Martin Heidegger (Between Good and Evil; English translation, 1998), Safranski manages to summarize his subject’s ideas with admirable fluency—and without ever mistaking his own role for that of an advocate. Safranski also proves himself to be a master of what might be called philosophical narration, drawing on just the right amount of detail from Nietzsche’s personal background and historical milieu to provide a context for his philosophy while rarely allowing those details to overshadow the ideas that form the core of Nietzsche’s life. 

The Nietzsche that emerges from Safranski’s study is a man who, from his teenage years until his mental collapse at the age of forty-five, tirelessly devoted his formidable intellect to making sense of the world in terms of its intrinsic meaninglessness. The case of Nietzsche thus presents us with the peculiar spectacle of a philosopher who began his intellectual life, not from a position of openness to an elusive truth not yet grasped, but rather from an unshakable conviction that he had already found it—and that all of human experience and history had to be reconceived in its light. 

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844 in the small village of Röcken, Germany. His father, Pastor Karl Ludwig Nietzsche, died five years later of “softening of the brain,” leaving Nietzsche to be raised (along with his sister Elisabeth) by his mother, Franziska, and two unmarried aunts. The young Nietzsche was both intellectually precocious and astonishingly self-absorbed. He wrote his first philosophical essay, “On the Origin of Evil,” at the age of twelve. By thirteen, he had written his first autobiography. He would go on to write eight more over the next ten years, each of them concluding that, in Safranski’s words, “his life was exemplary.” 

Despite Nietzsche’s early penchant for self-aggrandizement—a tendency that would mark all of his written work—both he and his family believed for some time that he would follow in his father’s footsteps to become a pastor. But at some point between 1859 and 1861, while Nietzsche attended an elite boarding school, he began to break decisively with his faith. Although he asserted in his 1859 autobiography that “God has guided me safely in everything as a father would his weak little child,” by May 1861 he had concluded that the idea of God was, in Safranski’s words, “unfathomable,” because there was simply “too much intense injustice and evil in the world.” 

These first tentative steps away from Christianity were quickly followed by others. In an essay composed on his Easter vacation in 1862, the seventeen-year-old Nietzsche would wonder “how our view of the world might change if there were no God, immortality, Holy Spirit, or divine inspiration, and if the tenets of millennia were based on delusions.” Safranski explains how this thought quickly generated a series of puzzles that would set Nietzsche’s philosophical agenda for the rest of his life: “Might people have been ‘led astray by a vision’ for such a long time? What kinds of reality are left behind once religious phantasms have been taken away?” 

Over the next few years, Nietzsche would wrestle with his suspicion that all received truths are illusory. Although he had planned to study theological and classical philology at the University of Bonn when he arrived there in the fall of 1864, he dropped his concentration in theology after a single semester. By the following summer, he would write to his sister that, although it would be easy to continue believing in the comforting tales of their youth, “the truth is not necessarily in league with the beautiful and the good.” On the contrary, he wrote, the truth can be “detestable and ugly in the extreme.”

From this point on, Nietzsche would devote his life to breaking from—and then reflecting on how mankind might thrive after having left behind—“the first and last things.” Early in his university education, Nietzsche thought of himself as continuing the work of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, whom he described as his “liberator” from dogma and tradition. As Safranski writes, Schopenhauer confirmed Nietzsche’s youthful intuition that “the inner nature of the world is based not on reason and intellect but on impulses and dark urges, dynamic and senseless.” “True life,” Schopenhauer claimed, is pure “will,” which “roars behind or underneath it.” The challenge was learning how to live in light of the truth that all apparent meaning and purpose in life is in fact an illusion. At first Nietzsche was intrigued by Schopenhauer’s own proposal—the self-negation of the will, culminating in quasi-Buddhistic peace and passivity—but he soon rejected it on the grounds that it amounted to an attitude of defeat in the face of “nothingness.” Nietzsche longed to find a way to love and affirm life, despite its meaninglessness. 

Such concerns preoccupied his thinking as he continued his education in classical philology under the renowned scholar Friedrich Ritschl, first at Bonn, and then at the University of Leipzig. So impressed was Ritschl by his student that in 1869 he recommended Nietzsche for a professorship at the University of Basel before he had completed either his dissertation or postgraduate thesis—an honor as rare in the nineteenth century as it is today. When Nietzsche finally produced a monograph, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), the expectations were thus very high among his colleagues. They certainly did not anticipate that Nietzsche would completely forsake the scholarly norms of the philological profession to write a highly speculative, even revolutionary account of ancient Greek culture that was largely inspired by his own existential fixations. 

All of Nietzsche’s work begins from the assumption that, viewed in itself, the world is a meaningless and purposeless chaos. As he would write in his notebooks in 1888, less than a year before his mental breakdown, “For a philosopher to say, ‘the good and the beautiful are one,’ is infamy; if he goes on to add, ‘also the true,’ one ought to thrash him. Truth is ugly.” In The Birth of Tragedy and the shorter essays he wrote in the early and mid-1870s, Nietzsche proposed that human beings “can become healthy, strong, and fruitful” only when they live within an “enveloping atmosphere” that protects them from having to face this ugly truth without mediation. The enveloping atmosphere consists of protective illusions that come to be taken as truths by those who live within its “horizon,” which enables them to “endure without being destroyed.” But these second-order truths—or “myths”—must not entirely conceal the meaninglessness that they cover over. Rather, the myths must grant partial access to the authentic truth. In its translucence to truth, the mythical horizon allows human beings to both face and “forget” the ugliness in just the right proportions. 

The Birth of Tragedy is an interpretation of how the ancient Greeks achieved this balance between truth and untruth more perfectly than any other culture in history and why that balance eventually collapsed; it also suggests how German culture might acquire an analogous state of equilibrium in modern times. Nietzsche associates the impulses or drives that enabled the Greeks to live and thrive in the partial light of the “terror and horror of existence” with the Olympian gods of Apollo and Dionysus; he claims that in different but complementary ways they made possible the “continuous redemption” of the “eternally suffering and contradictory” character of the world. 

The first of these impulses—the Apollonian—responded to the “mysterious ground of our being” by answering our “ardent longing for illusion.” It used beauty and artistry, measure and proportion to conceal from the Greeks, at least partially, the “substratum of suffering and of knowledge,” and left the individual half-conscious “in his tossing bark, amid the waves” of human existence, in a kind of “waking dream.” According to Nietzsche, Sophocles’ Antigone, with its stark and yet balanced conflicts between competing duties, stands as a particularly vivid example of the Apollonian in action. 

But the full accomplishment of Greek tragedy cannot be grasped by conceiving it entirely in terms of Apollonian dreams. It must be complemented by the contrary Dionysian impulse, which pulled in a very different direction. In a frenzy of intoxication, which Nietzsche associates with the orgiastic violence of the ancient world’s Bacchic festivals, the Dionysian at once exposed the “mysterious primordial unity” from which all things spring and produced “complete self-forgetfulness” on the part of individuals. This “mystic feeling of oneness” culminated in a transfiguring experience in which man “feels himself a god [and] . . . walks about enchanted, in ecstasy, like the gods he saw walking in his [Apollonian] dreams.” 

According to Nietzsche, the Greeks achieved greatness by synthesizing their Apollonian and Dionysian drives in the tragic dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles. In the greatest of their plays, the Greeks were exposed to the ideal quantities of truth and illusion. In a play such as Oedipus Rex, they were granted a glimpse of the abyss, and yet that glimpse was so artfully presented in “an Apollonian world of images” that their “nausea” was transformed into “notions with which one can live.” 

But the tragic balance was extremely difficult to maintain. Nietzsche claims that the democratic character, heightened self-consciousness, and “cheerfulness” of Euripides’ plays signaled that the tragic age of Greece was coming to an end. But the deepest cause of its demise could be found elsewhere, in a “newborn demon,” whose approach to life so opposed the Dionysian element in Aeschylean tragedy that it was subsequently vanquished from the Greek stage, and henceforth from the history of the West. That demon was none other than Socrates. 

The middle chapters of The Birth of Tragedy contain what might be the most forceful critique of Socrates since Aristophanes lampooned him in The Clouds during the ancient philosopher’s own lifetime. Nietzsche contends that Socrates stood in profound opposition to the “drunken revelry” of tragedy, falsely teaching human beings that “using the thread of causality, [they could] penetrate the deepest abysses of being.” Even worse, he taught that “to be beautiful” something must be “intelligible,” and that “knowledge is a virtue.” The Socratic “theoretical man” lives to uncover the truth at all costs, assuming that doing so will be an unambiguous benefit to mankind. While the tragedians had understood the importance of the surface of things, the Socratic philosopher, stubbornly and naively convinced of the goodness of truth, pursues it without restraint—and the results are catastrophic. 

In the first formulation of an argument he will greatly refine in his later work, Nietzsche claims that the philosopher’s headlong lunge toward the truth ends up exposing the “lies concealed in the essence of logic.” When this happens—when the philosopher uncovers the fact that logic is a human construction imposed on the chaos of reality—logic effectively “bites its own tail” and refutes itself. In Nietzsche’s view, this is exactly what has happened in the hyperlogical culture of the modern world: the theoretical optimism first defended by Socrates had reached a kind of termination in which human beings begin to sense the awful truth that its most fundamental premises are fictions. They have thus also begun to grasp (in Nietzsche’s own work) the wisdom of the pre-Socratic tragedians, who understood, if only half-consciously, that mankind “needs art as a protection and a remedy” for truth. 

That modern man confronts an unprecedented crisis of meaninglessness is a view that Nietzsche would hold throughout his career. What changed was his account of how it came about and his proposal for how we should respond to it. In his early work, he believes that modern man requires a new “beautiful illusion” to replace the crumbling Socratic culture of the West. This new mythology would serve the same function that the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles did for the Greeks. When it comes to specifying where we might find a new mythology to accomplish this much needed “rebirth of tragedy,” Nietzsche announces with considerable bombast that it will arise from the neopagan, mythopoetic operas of Richard Wagner.

Nietzsche had met Wagner in 1868 and quickly developed an intense friendship with the composer and his wife, Cosima von Bülow. Over the next few years, the three shared their innermost cultural and philosophical hopes with one another—so much so, in fact, that by the time of the publication of his first book, Nietzsche could write to a friend that “I have formed an alliance with Wagner. You cannot imagine how close we are now and how fully our plans mesh.” Those plans, unveiled in the final third of The Birth of Tragedy, involved nothing less than the satiation of modern man’s spiritual “hunger” by providing him with a neotragic horizon within which the “significance of life” could be “redeemed” just as it had been for the pre-Socratic Greeks.

It is hardly surprising that Nietzsche’s colleagues greeted his book with a mixture of incomprehension and disdain. Expecting the philological wunderkind to produce an exercise in meticulous scholarship, they were shocked to discover that he had chosen instead to issue a rallying cry to cultural revolution. What Safranski fittingly describes as Nietzsche’s academic “excommunication” began almost immediately. Over the next few years, he divided his time between convalescing from a series of illnesses, teaching a handful of students he deemed “incompetent,” and writing a number of brilliant but decidedly nonacademic essays on Schopenhauer, Wagner, David Friedrich Strauss, and “The Benefits and Drawbacks of History for Life.” His alienation from academic life finally culminated in his resignation from the University of Basel in 1879. He would spend the next ten years as a nomad traveling throughout Germany, Switzerland, and Italy while devoting himself almost entirely to philosophical reflection and writing. 

Although Nietzsche’s work continued to show signs of Wagner’s influence for several years after the publication of The Birth of Tragedy, the two men gradually drifted apart during the 1870s. As Safranski suggests, Nietzsche eventually became disillusioned with his own early proposals to cure modern disillusionment. While Nietzsche once hoped that Wagner could inspire a renewal of meaning and purpose in modernity, by the end of the decade he had come to consider the composer a purveyor of kitsch who embodied the most decadent aspects of modern culture. It is even possible to say that Nietzsche wrote his next major work, Human, All Too Human (1878), in order to inure himself against the kinds of hopes that Wagner’s music had inspired in him. 

If Nietzsche began his earliest philosophical reflections from the assumption that “truth is ugly”—and that all meaning arises out of a creative attempt to cope with this ugliness—the post-Wagner Nietzsche was, if anything, more radical in his refusal to accept any “metaphysical solace.” As before, modern man had fallen into meaninglessness, but now there was no possible redemption from it—and this we were supposed to accept as good news. In Human, All Too Human and Daybreak (1881), an almost Voltairean Nietzsche exulted in his own capacity to endure with a smile what Pascal had described as the “horror at the infinite immensity of spaces.” Not until 1882’s The Joyful Science did Nietzsche begin to develop the profundity that characterizes his mature and most justly admired work. 

Like its immediate predecessors, The Joyful Science is a collection of numbered aphorisms ranging in length from a few words to several pages. This style, which Nietzsche employs in most of his later works, enables him to shift topics in unpredictable ways. An aphorism on politics might be followed by one on art, science, religion, psychology, German Idealism, newspapers, ancient philosophy, Renaissance history, or modern literature. Sometimes one aphorism builds on another, producing a sustained argument or interpretation; at other times the jarring juxtaposition between them leads to deliberate disorientation. It is amidst the chaotic stream of brilliantly disjointed insights and observations that the reader of The Joyful Science comes upon aphorism 125, “The Madman.” 

Nietzsche begins this one-and-a-half-page masterpiece of modern disenchantment by describing a madman who “lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’” Then, as those in the square gawk and laugh at the lunatic with embarrassed disapproval, he cries out: “Whither is God? . . . I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers . . . . God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” 

Nietzsche was hardly the first modern figure to espouse atheism. The most radical writers of the Enlightenment suspected that God was a fiction created by the human mind. G. W. F. Hegel famously declared that modernity is “Good Friday without Easter Sunday.” And throughout the nineteenth century, a series of authors, from Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx to Charles Darwin, claimed that religion is a human projection onto a spiritually lifeless world. Nietzsche agreed with this tradition in every respect but one. Whereas most modern atheists viewed their lack of piety as an unambiguous good—as a mark of their liberation from the dead weight of authority and tradition—Nietzsche responded to his insight into the amoral chaos at the heart of the world with considerable pathos. If in Human, All Too Human and Daybreak he flirted with the facile cheerfulness so common to his fellow atheists, beginning with aphorism 125 of The Joyful Science, Nietzsche showed that he now understood with greater depth that the passing of God has potentially devastating consequences for Western Civilization. This is the madman’s requiem aeternam deo:

But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?

If God is dead, then man has completely lost his orientation. There is no human dignity, no equality, no rights, no democracy, no liberalism, and no good and evil. In the light of Nietzsche’s insight, a thinker such as Marx looks extraordinarily superficial, railing against religion on the one hand while remaining firmly attached to ideals of justice and equality on the other. He has failed to grasp the simple truth that if God is dead, then nothing at all can be taken for granted—and absolutely everything is permitted. 

But how could God be dead? The idea is permeated by paradox. If God is who He claims to be, then it is obviously impossible for Him to have “bled to death under our knives,” as the madman declares. (Of course Christians believe that, as the Son, God did die at our hands, but Nietzsche intends the madman’s statements to apply to the triune God in His monotheistic unity.) God may come to be ignored by a world too fixated on earthly goods to notice Him, but clearly He is not vulnerable to human malice or indifference. Unless, of course, He never existed in the first place. Perhaps then it would make a kind of poetic sense to speak of God “dying” once people have ceased to believe in Him. In this case, man would not simply be responsible for killing God, but also for having given birth to Him in the first place. Much of Nietzsche’s late work defends just such an interpretation, arguing that Western man is equally responsible for creating and destroying God. The most thorough statement of this view can be found in The Genealogy of Morals (1887), which purports to tell the hidden history of morality from its origins to its collapse in the modern age. 

In the beginning, there was chaos. All of Nietzsche’s books begin from this assumption. The Genealogy departs from those works in asserting that this primordial anarchy consisted of an unfocused, undifferentiated, and purposeless “will to power” that permeated all things. (Whether the will to power merely animates living creatures or acts as a metaphysical force that pervades all of nature remains unclarified.) The pointless, anarchistic violence that characterized the prehistoric world came to an end when certain individuals began to focus their will to power on the goal of decisively triumphing over others. When they finally succeeded, these victorious individuals, whom Nietzsche dubs “the strong,” foisted the first “moral valuation” onto mankind. 

In the strong (or “noble”) valuation, the good is nothing other than an expression of what the members of the victorious class do and what they affirm. And what they do is triumph ruthlessly over the weak by violence. Likewise, the opposite of the good—the bad—is defined by the strong as weakness, or the inability to conquer the strong. Nietzsche illustrates the dynamics of the strong valuation with an infamous image of birds of prey devouring defenseless lambs. The birds of prey do not choose to eat the lambs; there is thus no free will involved and nothing blameworthy about their viciousness. It’s simply what they do; what they do is the essence of who they are; and who they are serves as the measure of good and bad. 

Once the meaning of good and bad has been established, a theory of justice grows up on its basis. Justice for the strong amounted to a simple sense of proportionality: when an individual incurs a debt, he must discharge it by repaying it and/or submitting to retributive punishment. Nietzsche implies that, for the strong, facing up to wrongdoing and accepting punishment was largely a matter of honor, so in societies governed by the noble valuation justice was usually meted out quickly and brutally. 

The preconditions were now in place for the birth of the gods. In Nietzsche’s view, polytheistic religions emerged out of the stories that the strong told themselves about their long-forgotten, prehistoric origins. First, they imagined that the founders of their community were just like them, only stronger—and they developed rituals of sacrifice that enabled them to express gratitude and discharge imagined debts to these founders. Then, as their community grew in power and extent over time, the founders that the strong projected onto the past became even stronger. Eventually, the founders came to be thought of as gods, who served as noble ideals for the strong to emulate as they sought to cultivate their power and cruelty. 

According to Nietzsche, it was within this context of divinely sanctioned oppression that an epochal “transvaluation of values” took place. This “slave revolt in morality” began when the weak—out of what Nietzsche calls their ressentiment and their “spirit of revenge” against the strong—started to teach a series of radically new and ingenious ideas. To begin with, they claimed for the first time that there is such a thing as free will, so the brutal actions of the strong, far from being simply “what they do,” came to be understood as the result of a choice. The weak then likewise asserted that their own failure to triumph over the strong was a result of the choice to refrain from such actions, rather than an inability to do so. For the slavish revolutionaries, all human beings are tempted by “sin” to engage in “evil,” and the strong are noteworthy above all else for their decision to embrace and even encourage such behavior, while the weak define their lives by the struggle to resist it. Thus it comes to be that what was formerly considered bad—namely, weakness—is christened as the highest good, while the formerly good—namely, strength—is transformed into evil

In this way, the slaves (obviously the Jews and their Christian descendants) fashioned a life-denying “ascetic ideal” to replace the life-affirming valuation of the strong. Along with it comes the notion of a new kind of deity—a God above all other gods, to whom each of us owes a debt—an “original sin”—so great that we are powerless to discharge it on our own, without His gratuitous gift of redeeming grace. Unlike the gods of the strong, who behaved like outsized brutes and whose cruelty served as an attainable ideal for the strong to emulate, the God of the slaves is so transcendently good that all attempts to approximate His holiness inevitably fall short. Far from serving as a healthy ideal, then, the ascetic God ends up negating the world and everything in it, including human beings, by His very existence. 

The ascetic ideal that gives birth to God is thus much more complicated than the valuation that preceded it. Whereas the noble valuation grew out of and enhanced the self-affirmation of the strong, the slaves adhere to an ideal that denigrates pride and therefore seeks to diminish and humiliate the self. And yet it, like all valuations, arises from out of the self and its will to power. As Nietzsche writes in Human, All Too Human, “Man takes positive pleasure in violating himself with excessive demands and afterwards idolizing this tyrannically demanding something in his soul. In every ascetic morality, man worships one part of himself as a god and in doing so demonizes the other part.” In the Genealogy, Nietzsche describes this violent “self-splitting” as an example of how “life” can turn “against life,” and, in turn, actually enhance life in new and interesting ways. In seeking to attain the impossible—to become “worthy” of a God whose goodness transcends the world—the ascetic slave directs his own will against itself, and thus creates a wholly new form of cultural life founded on guilt and bad conscience. It is a culture of psychological depravity, as individuals, tutored by a new ruling class of priests, come to despise themselves, and never so much as when they begin to experience the least bit of happiness or success. 

Nietzsche’s account of how the ascetic ideal gives birth to God is ingenious. But no less so is his narrative of how it leads to God’s death, as well as its own self-destruction. Nietzsche’s narrative derives much of its shock effect from the fact that it so profoundly contradicts the dominant story of the rise of modern science, in Nietzsche’s time as well as ours. While modern intellectuals typically argue that science arose in opposition to the Church, Nietzsche considers science to represent the “perfection” of the same ascetic ideal that originally gave birth to Christianity. 

In Nietzsche’s view, science is marked by an unwavering belief in the goodness of truth—and the conviction that one reaches this truth by negating the world in a way that is similar to, but much more radical than, the method employed by Christianity. Christianity claims, for example, that human life is stained by sin and then negates the former by calling on the righteous to overcome the latter. But science goes much further in its negation of the world, to deny the distinction—or at least to stress the similarities—between man and “lower” entities. Biology reduces us to the level of other organisms, chemistry tells us that we are comprised of the same elements as inanimate objects, and physics underlines the continuity between human beings and all the matter in the universe. In the light of modern science, the differentiation of the human world into kinds of things lacks a foundation in the natural world. Science thus dissolves the distinctions that make meaning possible. 

Of course most professional scientists do not follow through so rigorously on the implications of their approach to understanding the world, but that is irrelevant to Nietzsche. What matters to him is that modern Western culture is permeated by an ethic of ascetic reductionism that seeks to tear down all existing cultural structures. One need not work in a laboratory to further the ascetic ideal. On the contrary, as we learn toward the end of the Genealogy, Nietzsche understands his own thought to represent the ultimate consummation of the ascetic ideal—the moment at which “science” unmasks itself as the perfection of the ascetic ideal, and, in turn, discovers that this ideal is an arbitrary valuation projected onto reality in order to derive a sense of purpose in the face of chaos. It is in this way that the ascetic ideal manages both to give birth to and then to kill the Christian God. 

Nietzsche thus concludes the Genealogy as he began The Birth of Tragedy, by asserting that, when faced with the ugly truth of things, mankind responds by producing illusions that come to be taken as true”until they are eventually exposed for the lies that they are. The Genealogy adds the twist that this very process is said to be driven by the character of the lies Western man has believed in. That is, the ascetic ideal is a lie that eventually demands its own exposure as a lie. As Nietzsche writes in the penultimate aphorism of the Genealogy: “Unconditional honest atheism . . . is the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two thousand years of training in truthfulness that finally forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God.”

How are we to respond to the complete collapse of the moral valuation that has reigned for two millennia? Nietzsche offers no answer in the Genealogy, which ends as it began—with meaningless chaos. Other works are somewhat more helpful, however. The speech of the “madman” from The Joyful Science, for example, provides a hint. Shortly after declaring that we have killed God, the madman asks a series of rhetorical questions:

How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off of us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? (Emphasis added)

Here Nietzsche indicates that the death of God requires that we take His place by becoming a race of gods. The meaning of this extraordinary suggestion is elaborated most fully in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-1885), easily the most difficult book in Nietzsche’s corpus. 

In one of the most fascinating passages of his biography, Safranski recounts how Nietzsche first came to the idea of writing Zarathustra by way of a quasi-revelatory experience of inspiration near the Surlej boulder in the Upper Engadine mountains of Switzerland on August 6, 1881. There, on the shores of an alpine lake, Nietzsche felt as though he were “a mere incarnation, a mere mouthpiece, a mere medium of overpowering forces.” The religious character of his experience is fitting, for the book he was inspired to write stands as Nietzsche’s answer to the Bible. It tells the story of a man named Zarathustra, who, at the age of thirty, “left his home . . . and went into the mountains” for a life of complete solitude. Then, ten years later, he resolves to return to civilization, to share his incomparable wisdom with humanity.

Upon his return he discovers that, although his fellow human beings are oblivious to the fact that “God is dead,” His passing has begun to have significant detrimental effects on mankind. Among the most memorable passages in Zarathustra is the account of the “last man,” who, in God’s absence, believes he has “invented happiness.” This last man no longer strives for anything great, he is too cautious to stand out from the “herd,” he consumes various “poisons” to ensure an “agreeable sleep” and an “agreeable death,” and he looks back on all of human history with a smug sense of his own superiority. Such a man is one step away from becoming so “poor and domesticated” that he will no longer “shoot the arrow of his longing beyond man.” Without a God to look up to, man is on the verge of becoming less than human.

And yet ours is not an age for despair. As Nietzsche’s Zarathustra declares as he gazes in disgust at the last man, “The time has come for man to set himself a goal. The time has come for man to plant the seed of his highest hope.” The death of God therefore presents, in addition to great dangers, an extraordinary opportunity. While we may very well become subhuman, we may also transform ourselves into something superhuman. Thus does Zarathustra describe his purpose: “I teach you the Overman.” Combining the Social Darwinism so common in the late nineteenth century with his own unique brand of anthropo-theological speculation, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra announces that “man is something that shall be overcome.”

What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the Overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm . . . . Man is a rope tied between beast and Overman—a rope over an abyss. A dangerous across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end. 

Man, then, is poised to evolve into a god through his own efforts. But what will make possible such a monumental transformation? The answer lies in the most peculiar doctrine of Nietzsche’s philosophy: the “eternal recurrence of the same,” which he first (and most lucidly) presented in an allegorical aphorism of The Joyful Science titled “The Greatest Weight.” It is worth quoting in its entirety:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you, “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything immeasurably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, a speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him, “You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

While this passage makes it sound as if the doctrine of the eternal recurrence serves as a quasi-mythical Kantian postulate—proclaiming that we should act as if it were true despite knowing that it is not—Safranski shows that Nietzsche experienced a kind of euphoria upon discovering what he thought was definitive scientific evidence for its reality and truth. Apparently Nietzsche believed that the finite amount of matter and energy in the universe, combined with its temporal infinity, implied (in Safranski’s words) that “all possible events pertaining to both the animate and the inanimate realms have already taken place, and . . . will recur ad infinitum.” 

But regardless of whether Nietzsche considered the doctrine to be scientifically verifiable or merely a substitute for the neopagan Wagnerian myths he embraced in his youth, there can be no doubt that he thought of it as the key to man’s absolute affirmation of himself and the world—and even (what may amount to the same thing) his own self-divination. As the allegory of the demon makes clear, Nietzsche believed that if human beings could come to incorporate the eternal recurrence into their view of the world—to view every second of their lives as a moment worthy of being repeated infinite times, rather than as a prelude to a truer or better world to come—they would, in effect, confer the dignity of the eternal onto this world. As Safranski writes, “All the ecstasy, all the bliss, all the ascensions of feeling, all the hunger for intensity previously projected into the beyond would now be concentrated in the immediate life of the here and now. The doctrine of the eternal recurrence was designed to function by preserving the powers of transcendence for immanence or, as Zarathustra proclaimed, remaining ‘faithful to the earth.’”

But what about the past? Even assuming that we could come to believe in the truth of the eternal recurrence, would we not face the dilemma that, as Martin Heidegger put it, each of us is “thrown” into a world we did not create? Whereas our present and future emerge, at least to some extent, out of our choices, our past is given to us. Nevertheless, Nietzsche appears to have believed that once we had affirmed our present and future, affirmation of our past would follow in its wake. After all, if the person I am today is worth affirming for all eternity, then the person I once was must be equally worthy, since my past self made my present self possible. When I begin to think of myself in this way, I not only accept the necessity of my fate and its role in making me who I am, but I also come to love that fate (amor fati). In fact, my affirmation of my own past can expand to such an extent that I begin to act as if I could will it. And when that happens, my will comes to fill the entire meaningful universe—past, present, and future. In such a world, man has definitively taken the place of God. Or, as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra puts it in a cryptic but crucially important passage:

. . . as creator, guesser of riddles, and redeemer of accidents, I taught them to work on the future and to redeem with their creation all that has been. To redeem what is past in man and to recreate all “it was” until the will says, “Thus I willed it! Thus I shall will it”—this I called redemption and this alone I taught them to call redemption.

Nietzsche wanted nothing less than to make us totally at home in the world, and he understood that this monumental task could be accomplished only by convincing us that we possess the power to redeem it, all by ourselves, without God.

Nietzsche devoted the final years of his sanity to thinking through the conundrums generated by his antitheological ire. For some time he hoped to present a systematic summary of the views he first sketched in Thus Spake Zarathustra. But the book he envisioned, tentatively titled The Will to Power: Attempt at a Revaluation of All Values, was not to be. Although he produced a flood of aphoristic and increasingly hyperbolic books between 1886 and 1888—Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morals, Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, the autobiographical Ecce Homo, and hundreds of pages of notebook entries that have been subsequently (and somewhat deceptively) published as The Will to Power—his magnum opus never materialized. 

Yet we have reason to think that Nietzsche himself came to believe, in his madness, that he had attained the self-divination he longed for. In January 1889, just after his hysterical collapse in the streets of Turin at the sight of a carriage driver beating a horse, and a few weeks before being institutionalized in a psychiatric clinic, Nietzsche wrote a letter to the esteemed historian Jacob Burckhardt, in which he declared that “in the end I would much rather be a Basel professor than God; but I have not dared to carry my private egotism to the point that I would desist from the creation of the world.” And then there was the letter to a friend, Peter Gast, comprised of a single sentence:

To my maëstro Pietro:

Sing me a new song: the world is transfigured and all the heavens are full of joy.

The Crucified

Nietzsche went on to live eleven years in a semicatatonic state, dying in 1900, on the threshold of a century that he had predicted would be one of worldwide wars and unprecedented violence. Ever since he slipped into psychosis, it has been a commonplace for romantic interpreters of Nietzsche’s life and thought to conclude that he, like Novalis, Friedrich Hölderlin, and many other modern philosophers, poets, and artists, was driven mad by his own heroic efforts to grasp the truth in all of its horror. For these admirers, Nietzsche deserves to be considered a selfless martyr to thinking in its purist form. Aside from the fact that such an interpretation simply dismisses the theory accepted by most scholars—namely, that Nietzsche’s breakdown was caused by an advanced case of syphilis—it also accepts without question that Nietzsche was right to think that the truth stands radically opposed to the beautiful and the good. Since nearly every word he ever wrote flows from this assumption, any attempt to evaluate Nietzsche’s work as a whole must confront it head on. 

Unfortunately, Safranski contributes little to such a confrontation. At some points he offers the banal observation that Nietzsche’s books are motivated by the “will to an unceasing adventure in thinking.” At others, he ventures a more creative, but no less unhelpful, suggestion that Nietzsche should have consistently advocated a “bicameral system of culture.” Building on an image Nietzsche employed in Human, All Too Human, Safranski suggests that it is possible on Nietzschean grounds to conceive of a culture in which “one chamber [is] heated up by the passions of genius while the other [is] cooled off with principles of common sense and balanced out with collective pragmatism.” Safranski believes that if Nietzsche had endorsed such a two-fold conception of truth—one for radical artist-philosophers, another for moderate practical men—he could have pursued his adventure in thinking without “abandon[ing] the idea of democracy and justice.” 

As appealing as Safranski’s proposal might sound—enabling us to have, as it were, the best of both worlds—it has numerous problems. To begin with, as Safranski himself points out, Nietzsche would have judged the attempt to hold on to any form of democratic morality an example of the “feeble compromise [and] indecisiveness” that he associates with the nihilistic “last men.” Then there is the more fundamental difficulty that in Nietzsche’s thought everything flows from his conviction that the truth is meaningless chaos and flux. For Nietzsche, it is simply impossible for there to be two equally valid truths; there can only be the ugly truth itself and the noble lies that mask it to one degree or another. Although in places Nietzsche does suggest an aristocratic arrangement in which an elite of philosophic geniuses pursues the truth while their slaves go about their lives immersed in illusions, one assumes that this is not what Safranski has in mind. 

But if Safranski’s explicitly critical suggestions do not help us to assess Nietzsche’s ideas, he does prepare a more philosophically serious reckoning with them by showing so clearly that atheistic meaninglessness is the premise, rather than the conclusion, of his thought. How can we begin to evaluate this Nietzschean antifaith? We find a compelling suggestion in the thought of Nietzsche’s early nemesis, Socrates. In two of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates confronts characters who espouse proto-Nietzschean views. For both Thrasymachus in the Republic and Callicles in the Gorgias, morality has no foundation in the order of things, which is utterly indifferent to human concerns, and justice is nothing other than “the rule of the stronger.” The parallels to Nietzsche’s view, especially as he articulates it in the Genealogy, are uncanny. 

It is instructive that in examining the opinions of these sophistical antimoralists, Socrates does not attempt to refute them using logic or empirical evidence of one kind or another. Rather, he takes what might be called a psychological approach. He attempts to show them that they are less consistently opposed to the good than they profess themselves to be. In the case of Thrasymachus, for example, Socrates’ dialectical questioning reveals a fundamental tension in his soul. On the one hand, Thrasymachus believes that “might makes right”—that the victor in a struggle for power demonstrates that he deserves his victory in the very act of winning it. But on the other hand, he admires the intelligence and cunning that enables certain individuals to triumph over others—so much so, in fact, that he finds the thought of an unintelligent man winning power to be deeply distasteful. Such a brute would not, in other words, deserve his victory. Thrasymachus, it seems, looks up to something besides mere power. Although he claims to orient his life toward nothing but force and violence, part of him believes in a higher good. 

Might not Nietzsche be vulnerable to a similar self-refutation? In his case, the tension arises from his reaction to the triumph of the weak over the strong in the slave revolt. On the basis of the theory sketched in the Genealogy, there is no basis for opposition to their victory. As it was for Thrasymachus, the very act of victory demonstrates that the triumphant party deserves to rule. One might even say that in the act of overpowering the strong, the weak effectively become the strong and thus ipso facto deserving of power. 

And yet, Nietzsche reacts to the overthrow of the noble valuation with anything but equanimity. Not only are his works suffused with grand schemes to bring about a rebirth of a brutal aristocratic order in the modern period, but Safranski helpfully notes that, when it came to the public policy debates of his day, Nietzsche invariably sided against the vulnerable. He rejected “shortening the length of the workday from twelve hours a day to eleven in Basel.” He was “a proponent of child labor, noting with approval that Basel permitted children over the age of twelve to work up to eleven hours a day.” He opposed the education of workers and thought that the only consideration in their treatment should be whether (in Nietzsche’s words) their “descendants also work well for our descendants.” Nietzsche was a consistent partisan of the strong against the weak in every aspect of life. 

The reason why Nietzsche took such a brutal position becomes apparent in a passage of Twilight of the Idols (1888) in which he rails against the French Revolution and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s defense of the common man:

What I hate [about the French Revolution] is its Rousseauean morality—the so-called “truths” of the Revolution through which it still works and attracts everything shallow and mediocre. The doctrine of equality! There is no more poisonous poison anywhere: for it seems to be preached by justice itself, whereas it really is the termination of justice. “Equal to the equal, unequal to the unequal”—that would be the true slogan of justice; and also its corollary: “Never make equal what is unequal.”

What is astonishing about this passage is not so much what it says about justice; virtually every political philosopher in Western history would have agreed that justice demands “equal to the equal, unequal to the unequal.” What is remarkable about the statement is that Nietzsche endorses its truth and resolves on its basis that human equality is fundamentally contrary to justice. One cannot help but conclude that Nietzsche—the man who gleefully proclaimed in a book titled Beyond Good and Evil that it was his goal to “sail right over morality”—was himself a perverse kind of moralist concerned above all about the injustice of shallowness and mediocrity. It is even possible to speculate that Nietzsche’s visceral hostility to democracy, compassion, peace, equal human dignity, and perhaps even God Himself, may have been motivated by a love for a particularly one-sided, profoundly distorted vision of justice. (Our best guide to the half-hidden moral dimension of Nietzsche’s thought is Peter Berkowitz’s masterful study, Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist [1995].) 

At the very least, it seems obvious that despite Nietzsche’s incessant denial of any possible foundation for a higher good in the order of things, he could not help but presuppose that such a good exists and that it has been violated by the rise of social and political equality. The presence of a similar psychological dynamic in Thrasymachus and a number of Socrates’ other interlocutors eventually led Plato to conclude that the Idea of the Good exceeds all things—even being itself—“in dignity and power.” Aristotle likewise chose to begin the Nicomachean Ethics with the declaration that “every art and inquiry, and similarly every human action and deliberate choice, . . . aims at some good.” Of course neither philosopher meant that every human action or idea truly is good; indeed, philosophizing consists in ascending from erroneous opinions about the good to knowledge of what it truly is. However, they did mean to suggest that, even when we choose or contemplate evil, we do so at least in part because, somewhere in our souls, we mistake it for a good. For the ancient philosophers, love of the good is coeval with the human condition.

For such a statement, as for so many others, Nietzsche would have nothing but contempt. No doubt he would describe it as yet another example of unwarranted Socratic “optimism.” And perhaps it is. Nothing in the texts of the philosophers can prove that the good as they conceived it truly exists—that it is not merely a beautiful illusion we project onto the void. Yet there it is, there it always has been, and there it will remain—our lodestar and magnetic north, determining the shape of human reflection even among those who devote their lives to cutting themselves off from it.

And so we are faced with a choice. We can follow Nietzsche in refusing to take our philosophical bearings from prephilosophical intimations of the good. Or we can place our trust in those intimations, allowing the good that is reflected in common opinion and experience to serve as an indication—however tentative, ambiguous, or elusive—of what is likely to be true. Attempt to break from the good or accept that, in the end, it is the only orientation we have: those are the options. After a very long century of delusional and bloody experiments against the good, we do not lack for reasons to turn our backs on Nietzsche’s truth. 

Damon Linker is Associate Editor of First Things.

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Image by Edvard Munch licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.