Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher who is best remembered for his insights on religion and morality. Nietzsche also questioned the normal acceptance of social attitudes towards life and morality. While mainly overlooked during his own lifetime, Nietzsche has subsequently received recognition as a significant figure in modern philosophy.
Friedrich Nietzsche was born near Leipzig, which at the time was part of Prussia. Quite early on, he showed some talents in both music and language and went to study at the internationally recognized Schulpforta school. After graduation, in 1864, Nietzsche was to continue his studies in theology and classical philology at the University of Bonn.
By 1871, Nietzsche had become professor of classical philology at the University of Basel, even before having completed his doctorate degree or received his teaching certificate. After moving to Basel, Nietzsche renounced his Prussian citizenship and apparently remained officially stateless, even though he served in the Franco-Prussian War as a medical orderly. During this time, he was to experience the horrors of war and witnessed the traumatic effects of battle.
By 1879, Nietzsche's health had declined to the point he was forced to resign his position at Basel. Various illnesses had plagued him since childhood and he was given to periods of short-sightedness, which verged on blindness, compounded by migraine headaches, and violent stomach attacks. Driven by illness to find a more compatible climate, Nietzsche travelled frequently and spent many summers near St. Moritz in Switzerland and winters in the Italian cities of Genoa and Turin plus the French city of Nice.
By 1889, Nietzsche suffered a mental collapse, while in Turin, but was eventually returned to a psychiatric clinic in Basel. Some have diagnosed Nietzsche's illness to a syphilitic infection, while others have diagnosed a form of brain cancer. Others have even suggested that that his breakdown was a symptom of a psychological maladjustment brought on by his philosophy. Nietzsche finally died in 1900 after contracting pneumonia.
Many of Nietzsche's ideas are often seen as contradictory. It is not even clear that Nietzsche himself regarded all his ideas as valid. Based on commentaries within his own work, Nietzsche can be seen to disagree with many other philosophers, such as Kant, Plato and Spinoza. Whether these conflicting elements in his writings were intentional or a means of challenging his readers to consider other alternatives or simply a by-product of his mental health can be debated.
Nietzsche saw nihilism as the outcome of the frustration in the search for meaning. Nihilism is a belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known. As such, a true nihilist believes in nothing. To possibly put this philosophy into some perspective of the time, the religious worldview was under attack from many sources, which ranged from philosophical scepticism through to science's empirical support of the heliocentric theory. Based on this backdrop of ideas, Nietzsche argued that the corrosive effects of nihilism would eventually destroy all moral, religious, and metaphysical convictions and precipitate a crisis in human history. Nietzsche's position with respect to nihilism is often linked to his famous statement `God is dead`, which is first seen in his work `The Gay Science` and subsequently in `Thus Spoke Zarathustra`.
In his book the `Anti-Christ`, Nietzsche argues against Christianity from the perspective of it being an ideology set forth by institutions like the church, and how the church had failed to truthfully represent the life of Jesus. It was important to Nietzsche that there was a recognition of the difference between the religion of Christianity and the real life of Jesus. However, Nietzsche went beyond previous `agnostic` or `atheistic` thinkers, who simply claimed that Christianity was untrue. In contrast, Nietzsche suggested that Christianity was propagated as a form of psychological warfare. However, Nietzsche considered Jesus as a unique individual, who established his own moral values although, in Nietzsche's view, Jesus ultimately denied the true reality in favour of a vision of the `Kingdom of God`. Within Nietzsche's separation of Jesus and Christianity, he goes on to suggest that Christianity is but a distortion of the teachings of Jesus. He also criticizes the institution of the Church for turning Jesus into a martyr and his life into the redemption of mankind in order to dominate the masses. He suggests that this process continued, throughout history, and by the 19th century, the Church's worldview had become a total inversion of the original worldview of Jesus.
Overall, Nietzsche's work addresses ethics from several perspectives, but he is often pigeonholed as a moral sceptic, in that he claimed that all ethical statements are false. Nietzsche argued that there were two types of morality:
- A master morality that actively comes from the 'noble man' and
- A slave morality that develops reactively within the `weak man`.
These two moralities are not simply opposites, but two different value systems in which the master morality is judged in terms of 'good' or 'bad', while slave morality is judged in terms of 'good' or 'evil'. To summarize a complex debate:
- The good/bad verses good/evil interpretations
- The `independent` verses the 'herd' position
- Values determine independently or values based on faith
Nietzsche elaborates many of these ideas in his book `On the Genealogy of Morals` and details his assessment of the ethical and moral teachings of the world's monotheistic religions. Returning to Nietzsche's somewhat infamous quote, `God is dead`, it is quite possible that he was making a relative, rather than absolute statement, suggesting that people were living as if God were dead, but had not yet recognized it. It was by this process; Nietzsche possibly believed that morality was eroding into nihilism. Therefore, in response to this situation, he may have been arguing that morality had to be re-evaluated along with the motives that underpinned them. Ultimately, it is an individual that has to decide what is a moral value, based on what Nietzsche saw as outdated or misguided cultural impositions or something rationalized as true.
In conclusion, the appropriation of Nietzsche's work by the Nazis resulted in much of his work being ignored until the 1950's. However, Nietzsche's influence on philosophy has subsequently increased dramatically and subject to new interpretations.