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Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 12, 2024, from

Article Summary

Appointed professor of classical philology at the University of Basel when he was just 24 years old, Nietzsche was expected to secure his reputation as a brilliant young scholar with his first book, Die Geburt der Tragödie (The Birth of Tragedy) (1872). But that book did not look much like a work of classical scholarship. Bereft of footnotes and highly critical of Socrates and modern scholarship, it spoke in rhapsodic tones of ancient orgiastic Dionysian festivals and the rebirth of Dionysian tragedy in the modern world. Classical scholars, whose craft and temperament it had scorned, greeted the book with scathing criticism and hostility; even Nietzsche eventually recognized it as badly written and confused. Yet it remains one of the three most important philosophical treatments of tragedy (along with those of Aristotle and Hegel) and is the soil out of which Nietzsche’s later philosophy grew. By 1889, when he suffered a mental and physical collapse that brought his productive life to an end, Nietzsche had produced a series of thirteen books which have left a deep imprint on most areas of Western intellectual and cultural life, establishing him as one of Germany’s greatest prose stylists and one of its most important, if controversial, philosophers.

Nietzsche appears to attack almost everything that has been considered sacred: not only Socrates and scholarship, but also God, truth, morality, equality, democracy and most other modern values. He gives a large role to the will to power and he proposes to replace the values he attacks with new values and a new ideal of the human person (the Übermensch meaning ‘overhuman’ or ‘superhuman’). Although Nazi theoreticians attempted to associate these ideas with their own cause, responsible interpreters agree that Nietzsche despised and unambiguously rejected both German nationalism and anti-Semitism. Little else in his thought is so unambiguous, at least in part because he rarely writes in a straightforward, argumentative style, and because his thought changed radically over the course of his productive life. The latter is especially true of his early criticism of Socrates, science and truth.

Nietzsche’s philosophizing began from a deep sense of dissatisfaction with modern Western culture, which he found superficial and empty in comparison with that of the ancient Greeks. Locating the source of the problem in the fact that modern culture gives priority to science (understood broadly, including all forms of scholarship and theory), whereas Presocratic Greece had given priority to art and myth, he rested his hopes for modern culture on a return to the Greek valuation of art, calling for a recognition of art as ‘the highest task and the truly metaphysical activity of this life’.

He soon turned his back on this early critique of science. In the works of his middle period he rejects metaphysical truth but celebrates the valuing of science and empirical truth over myth as a sign of high culture. Although he had earlier considered it destructive of culture, he now committed his own philosophy to a thoroughgoing naturalistic understanding of human beings. He continued to believe that naturalism undermines commitment to values because it destroys myths and illusions, but he now hoped that knowledge would purify human desire and allow human beings to live without preferring or evaluating. In the works of his final period, Nietzsche rejects this aspiration as nihilistic.

In his final period, he combined a commitment to science with a commitment to values by recognizing that naturalism does not undermine all values, but only those endorsed by the major ideal of value we have had so far, the ascetic ideal. This ideal takes the highest human life to be one of self-denial, denial of the natural self, thereby treating natural or earthly existence as devoid of intrinsic value. Nietzsche saw this life-devaluing ideal at work in most Western (and Eastern) religion and philosophy. Values always come into existence in support of some form of life, but they gain the support of ascetic religions and philosophies only if they are given a life-devaluing interpretation. Ascetic priests interpret acts as wrong or ‘sinful’ because the acts are selfish or ‘animal’ - because they affirm natural instincts - and ascetic philosophers interpret whatever they value - truth, knowledge, philosophy, virtue - in non-natural terms because they share the assumption that anything truly valuable must have a source outside the world of nature, the world accessible to empirical investigation. Only because Nietzsche still accepted this assumption of the ascetic ideal did naturalism seem to undermine all values.

According to his later thought, the ascetic ideal itself undermines values. First it deprives nature of value by placing the source of value outside nature. Then, by promoting the value of truth above all else, it leads to a denial that there is anything besides nature. Among the casualties of this process are morality and belief in God, as Nietzsche indicated by proclaiming that ‘God is dead’ and that morality will gradually perish. Morality is not the only possible form of ethical life, however, but a particular form that has been brought about by the ascetic ideal. That ideal has little life left in it, according to Nietzsche, as does the form of ethical life it brought about. Morality now has little power to inspire human beings to virtue or anything else. There is no longer anything to play the essential role played by the ascetic ideal: to inspire human beings to take on the task of becoming more than they are, thereby inducing them to internalize their will to power against themselves. Modern culture therefore has insufficient defences against eruptions of barbarism, which Nietzsche predicted as a large part of the history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

But Nietzsche now saw that there was no way to go back to earlier values. His hope rested instead with ‘new philosophers’ who have lived and thought the values of the ascetic ideal through to their end and thereby recognized the need for new values. His own writings are meant to exhibit a new ideal, often by exemplifying old virtues that are given a new, life-affirming interpretation.

Citing this article:
Clark, Maudemarie. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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