Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche

The philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche developed during the 19th Century amid growing criticism of Hegel's philosophic system and had its greatest intellectual and political influence in the 20th Century. Friedrich Nietzsche applied himself to such topics as morality, religion, epistemology, psychology, ontology, and social criticism.

Nietzsche himself left no direct exposition of his philosophy, but rather his general view on the world has become approximated by his works, and therefore remains the subject of intense scholarly dispute and interpretation. Because of Nietzsche's evocative style and often outrageous claims, his philosophy generates strong reactions of passionate love and disgust, and amateurs of all kinds are also heavily involved in the project of interpretation. Nietzsche noted in his autobiographical Ecce Homo that his philosophy developed over time, so interpreters have found it difficult to relate concepts central to one work to those central to another (e.g., the thought of the eternal recurrence features heavily in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but is almost entirely absent from his next book, Beyond Good and Evil). Added to this challenge is the fact that Nietzsche did not seem concerned to develop his thought into a system, even going so far as to disparage the attempt in Beyond Good and Evil.

Common themes in his thought can, however, be identified and discussed. His earliest work emphasized the opposition of Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in art, and the figure of Dionysus continued to play a role in his subsequent thought. Other major currents include the will to power, the claim that God is dead, the distinction between master and slave moralities, and radical perspectivism. Other concepts appear rarely, or are confined to one or two major works, yet are considered centerpieces of Nietzschean philosophy, e.g., the Übermensch and the thought of eternal recurrence. His later works involved a sustained attack on Christianity and Christian morality, and he seemed to be working toward what he called the transvaluation of all values (Umwertung aller Werte). While Nietzsche is often associated in the public mind with fatalism and nihilism, Nietzsche himself viewed his project as the attempt to overcome the pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Nihilism and God is dead

Nietzsche saw nihilism as the outcome of repeated frustrations in the search for meaning. He diagnosed nihilism as a latent presence within the very foundations of European culture, and saw it as a necessary and approaching destiny. The religious worldview had already suffered a number of challenges from contrary perspectives grounded in philosophical skepticism, and in modern science's evolutionary and heliocentric theory. Nietzsche saw this intellectual condition as a new challenge to European culture, which had extended itself beyond a sort of point-of-no-return. Nietzsche conceptualizes this with the famous statement "God is dead", which first appeared in his work in section 108 of The Gay Science, again in section 125 with the parable of "The Madman", and even more famously in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The statement, typically placed in quotation marks, accentuated the crisis that Nietzsche argued that Western culture must face and transcend in the wake of the irreparable dissolution of its traditional foundations, moored largely in classical Greek philosophy and Christianity.

Christianity and morality

In his book Anti-Christ, Nietzsche fights against how Christianity has become an ideology set forth by institutions like churches, and how churches have failed to represent the life of Jesus. Nietzsche finds it important to distinguish between the religion of Christianity and the person of Jesus. Nietzsche attacked Christian religion, as represented by churches and institutions, for what he called its "transvaluation" of healthy instinctive values. Transvaluation consists of the process by which one can view the meaning of a concept or ideology from a "higher" context. Nietzsche went beyond agnostic and atheistic thinkers of the Enlightenment, who simply regarded Christianity as untrue. He claimed that the Apostle Paul may have deliberately propagated Christianity as a subversive religion (a "psychological warfare weapon") within the Roman Empire as a form of covert revenge for the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and of the Second Temple in 70 AD during the Jewish War of 66 - 73 AD. Nietzsche contrasts the Christians with Jesus, whom he regarded as a unique individual, and argues he established his own moral evaluations. As such, Jesus represents a kind of step towards his ideation of the Übermensch. Ultimately, however, Nietzsche claims that, unlike the Übermensch, who embraces life, Jesus denied reality in favor of his "kingdom of God." Jesus's refusal to defend himself, and subsequent death, logically followed from this total disengagement. Nietzsche goes further to analyze the history of Christianity, finding it has progressively distorted the teachings of Jesus more and more. He criticizes the early Christians for turning Jesus into a martyr and Jesus's life into the story of the redemption of mankind in order to dominate the masses, and finds the Apostles cowardly, vulgar, and resentful. He argues that successive generations further misunderstood the life of Jesus as the influence of Christianity grew. By the 19th century, Nietzsche concludes, Christianity had become so worldly as to parody itself — a total inversion of a world view which was, in the beginning, nihilistic, thus implying the "death of God."

Master morality and slave morality

Nietzsche argued that two types of morality existed: a master morality that springs actively from the 'noble man', and a slave morality that develops reactively within the weak man. These two moralities do not present simple inversions of one another, they form two different value systems; master morality fits actions into a scale of 'good' or 'bad' whereas slave morality fits actions into a scale of 'good' or 'evil'. Notably he disdained both, though the first clearly less than the second.

The Wille zur Macht and the thought of Eternal Recurrence

Since Martin Heidegger at least, the concepts of the will to power (Wille zur macht), of Übermensch and of the thought of Eternal Recurrence have been inextricably linked. According to Heidegger's interpretation, one can not be thought without the others. During Nazi Germany, Alfred Baeumler attempted to separate the concepts, claiming that the Eternal Recurrence was only an "existential experience" that, if taken seriously, would endanger the possibility of a "will to power" — deliberately misinterpreted, as by the Nazis, as a "will for domination". Baeumler attempted to interpret the "will to power" along Social Darwinist lines, an interpretation refuted by Heidegger in his 1930s courses on Nietzsche.

The term Wille zur Macht first appeared in the posthumous fragment 23 [63] of 1876-1877. Heidegger's reading has become predominant among commentators, although some have criticized it: Mazzino Montinari by declaring that it was forging the figure of a "macroscopical Nietzsche", alien to all of his nuances.

The will to power

Nietzsche's "will to power" (Wille zur Macht) is the name of a concept created by Nietzsche; the title of a projected book which he finally decided not to write; and the title of a book compiled from his notebooks and published posthumously and under suspicious circumstances by his sister and Peter Gast.

The work consists of four separate books, entitled "European Nihilism", "Critique of the Highest Values Hitherto", "Principles of a New Evaluation", and "Discipline and Breeding". Within these books there are some 1067 small sections, usually less than a page, and sometimes just a key phrase--such as his opening comments in the 1st section of the preface:

"Of what is great one must either be silent or speak with greatness. With greatness--that means cynically and with innocence."

Despite Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche's falsifications (highlighted in 1937 by Georges Bataille and proved in the 1960s by the complete edition of Nietzsche's posthumous fragments by Mazzino Montinari and Giorgio Colli), his notes, even in the form given by his sister, remain a key insight into the philosophy of Nietzsche, and his unfinished transvaluation of all values. An English edition of Montinari & Colli's work is forthcoming (it has existed for decades in Italian, German and French).


In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche posits the (often translated as "overman" or "superman") as a goal that humanity can set for itself. While humanity must perish, it can either be overcome in the direction of something higher (the Übermensch) or it can sink to the level of the last man. While there is no suggestion that humanity is meant to become a race of Übermenschen, it can dedicate itself to the creation of such an individual. The Übermensch solves the problem of nihilism, giving new, aristocratic values to the world, just as the prophets, philosophers, and poets of old had done. These values are to be life-affirming, in contradistinction to the nascently life-negating values of Christianity. The flow of Thus Spoke Zarathustra makes it clear that the Übermensch is somehow related to the eternal recurrence, but the precise nature of that relation is the subject of considerable dispute.

Amor fati and the eternal recurrence

Nietzsche encountered the idea of the Eternal Recurrence in the works of Heinrich Heine, who speculated that one day a person would be born with the same thought-processes as himself, and that the same applied to every other individual. Nietzsche expanded on this thought to form his theory, which he put forth in The Gay Science and developed in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Schopenhauer directly influenced this theory. Schopenhauer postulated that a person who unconditionally affirms life would do so even if everything that has happened were to happen again repeatedly. On a few occasions in his notebooks, Nietzsche discusses the possibility of Eternal Recurrence as a cosmological truth (see Arthur Danto, Nietzsche as Philosopher for a detailed analysis of these efforts), but in the works he prepared for publication, he treats it more as a means of life-affirmation. He conceived of it as an hypothesis, or thought experiment.

According to Nietzsche, it would require a sincere Amor Fati (Love of Fate), not simply to endure, but to wish for the eternal recurrence of all events exactly as they occurred — all of the pain and joy, the embarrassment and glory. Nietzsche calls the idea "horrifying and paralyzing", and also characterizes the burden of this idea as the "heaviest weight" imaginable (das schwerste Gewicht). The wish for the eternal return of all events would mark the ultimate affirmation of life. According to some interpreters, the eternal return represents more than merely an intellectual concept or challenge; it resembles a koan, or a psychological device that occupies one's entire consciousness, stimulating a transformation of consciousness known as metanoia.

Alexander Nehamas wrote in Nietzsche: Life as Literature of three ways of seeing the eternal recurrence: "(A) My life will recur in exactly identical fashion." This expresses a totally fatalistic approach to the idea. "(B) My life may recur in exactly identical fashion." This second view conditionally asserts cosmology, but fails to capture what Nietzsche refers to in The Gay Science, 341. Finally, "(C) If my life were to recur, then it could recur only in identical fashion." Nehamas shows that this interpretation exists totally independently of physics and does not presuppose the truth of cosmology. Nehamas draws the conclusion that if individuals constitute themselves through their actions, then they can only maintain themselves in their current state by living in a recurrence of past actions (Nehamas 153).

Nietzsche's place in contemporary ethical theory

Nietzsche's work addresses ethics from several perspectives: meta-ethics, normative ethics, and descriptive ethics.

In the field of meta-ethics, one can perhaps most accurately classify Nietzsche as a moral skeptic; meaning that he claims that all ethical statements are false, because any kind of correspondence between ethical statements and "moral facts" remains illusory. (This forms part of a more general claim that no universally true fact exists, roughly because none of them more than "appear" to correspond to reality). Instead, ethical statements (like all statements) remain mere "interpretations." However, Nietzsche does not claim that all interpretations are equivalent, since some testify for "noble" character while others are the symptom of a "decadent" life-form.

Sometimes Nietzsche may seem to have very definite opinions on what he regards as moral or as immoral. Note, however, that one can explain Nietzsche's moral opinions without attributing to him the claim of their truth. For Nietzsche, after all, we needn't disregard a statement merely because it expresses something false. On the contrary, he depicts falsehood as essential for "life". Interestingly enough, he mentions a "dishonest lie", (discussing Wagner in The Case of Wagner) as opposed to an "honest" one, recommending further to consult Plato with regard to the latter, which should give some idea of the layers of paradox in his work.

In the juncture between normative ethics and descriptive ethics, Nietzsche distinguishes between "master morality" and "slave morality". Although he recognizes that not everyone holds either scheme in a clearly delineated fashion without some syncretism, he presents them in contrast to one another. Some of the contrasts in master vs. slave morality include:

  • "good" and "bad" interpretations vs. "good" and "evil" interpretations
  • "aristocratic" vs. "part of the 'herd'"
  • determines values independently of predetermined foundations (nature) vs. determines values on predetermined, unquestioned foundations (Christianity).

Nietzsche elaborated these ideas in his book On the Genealogy of Morality, in which he also introduced the key concept of ressentiment as the basis for the slave morality. Nietzsche's primarily negative assessment of the ethical and moralistic teachings of the world's monotheistic religions followed from his earlier considerations of the questions of God and morality in the works The Gay Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. These considerations led Nietzsche to the idea of eternal recurrence. Nietzsche primarily meant that, for all practical purposes, his contemporaries lived as if God were dead, though they had not yet recognized it. Nietzsche believed this "death" had already started to undermine the foundations of morality and would lead to moral relativism and moral nihilism. As a response to the dangers of these trends he believed in re-evaluating the foundations of morality to better understand the origins and motives underlying them, so that individuals might decide for themselves whether to regard a moral value as born of an outdated or misguided cultural imposition or as something they wish to hold true.

Social and political views

While a political tone may be discerned in Nietzsche's writings, his work does not in any sense propose or outline a "political project." The man who stated that "The will to a system is a lack of integrity" was consistent in never devising or advocating a specific system of governance, enquiry, or ethics — just as, being an advocate of individual struggle and self-realization, he never concerned himself with mass movements or with the organization of groups and political parties — although there are parts of his works where he considers an enigmatic "greater politics", and others were he thinks the problem of community .

In this sense, some have read Nietzsche as an anti-political thinker. Walter Kaufmann put forward the view that the powerful individualism expressed in his writings would be disastrous if introduced to the public realm of politics. Georges Bataille argued in 1937, in the Acéphale review, that Nietzsche's thoughts were too free to be instrumentalized by any political movement. In "Nietzsche and Fascists," he argued against such instrumentalization, by the left or the right, declaring that Nietzsche's aim was to by-pass the short timespan of modern politics, and its inherent lies and simplifications, for a greater historical timespan .

Later writers, led by the French intellectual Left, have proposed ways of using Nietzschean theory in what has become known as the "politics of difference" — particularly in formulating theories of political resistance and sexual and moral difference. Owing largely to the writings of Kaufmann and others, the spectre of Nazism has now been almost entirely exorcised from his writings.

Nietzsche and individualism

Nietzsche often referred to the common people who participated in mass movements and shared a common mass psychology as "the rabble", or "the herd." He allegedly valued individualism above all else, although this has been considered by many philosophers to be an oversimplification, as Nietzsche criticized the concept of the subject and of atomism (that is, the existence of an atomic subject at the foundation of everything, found for example in social contract theories). He considered the individual subject as a complex of instincts and wills-to-power, just as any other organization. Although some have attempted to link his philosophy with Max Stirner's radical individualism, it is first of all unlikely that Nietzsche read The Ego and Its Own (1844), and secondly it appears that Nietzsche's ignorance of Stirner lead him to incorrectly relate Stirner to Schopenhauer, to whom Nietzsche directly opposed himself . In any case, few philosophers really consider Nietzsche an "individualist" thinker. He is best characterized as a thinker of "hierarchy", although the precise nature of this hierarchy does not cover the current social order (the "establishment") and is related to his thought of the Will to Power. Against the strictly "egoist" perspective adopted by Stirner, Nietzsche concerned himself with the "problem of the civilization" and the necessity to give humanity a goal and a direction to its history, making him, in this sense, a very political thinker .

Furthermore, in the context of his criticism of morality and Christianity, expressed, among others works, in On the Genealogy of Morals and in The Antichrist, Nietzsche often criticized humanitarian feelings, detesting how pity and altruism were ways for the "weak" to take power over the "strong." However, he qualified his critique of Christianism as a "particular case" of his criticisms of free will . Along with the rejection of teleology, this critique of free will is one of the common points he shared with Spinoza, whom he qualified as a "precursor" . To the "ethics of compassion" (Mitleid, "shared suffering") exposed by Schopenhauer , Nietzsche opposed an "ethics of friendship" or of "shared joy" (Mitfreude) .

While he had a dislike of the state in general, which he called a "cold monster" in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche also spoke negatively of anarchists and socialism, and made it clear that only certain individuals could attempt to break away from the herd mentality. This theme is common throughout Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Nietzsche and biology

Nietzsche paid close attention to contemporary biology, and even formed the project of studying physiology and medicine and others scientific studies in Vienna, Munich or Berlin, along with Paul Rée and Lou von Salomé . However that project was abandoned for biographical reasons, concerning his relationship with Lou .

Some think that one central political theme running through much of Nietzsche's work was some sort of Social Darwinism — the idea that the strong have a natural right to dominate the weak, and that feelings such as compassion and mercy are burdens to be overcome. Others think that this is a misrepresentation of his critiques of morality and politics: the "genealogical method" is, in this sense, an appeal to the possibility of different moral values rather than a defense per se of what he describes as "master" and "slave" moralities. For the different interpretations, see Safranski.

Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy also addressed the question of artificial selection. While Nietzsche sometimes only required "distance" from the "gregarious type," which included people from all social classes and "races", he also supported eugenics. For example:

Twilight of the Idols (1888): Morality for physicians. -- The sick man is a parasite of society. In a certain state it is indecent to live longer. To go on vegetating in cowardly dependence on physicians and machinations, after the meaning of life, the right to life, has been lost, that ought to prompt a profound contempt in society. The physicians, in turn, would have to be the mediators of this contempt--not prescriptions, but every day a new dose of nausea with their patients. To create a new responsibility, that of the physician, for all cases in which the highest interest of life, of ascending life, demands the most inconsiderate pushing down and aside of degenerating life--for example, for the right of procreation, for the right to be born, for the right to live. To die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly.
The Antichrist (1888): What is good? -- All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad? -- All that proceeds from weakness. [..] The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philanthropy. And one shall help them to do so. What is more harmful than any vice? -- Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak -- Christianity ....
Ecce homo (1888): The new party of life, which takes charge of the greatest of all tasks, raising up humanity, including the relentless destruction of all that is degenerate and parasitical, will gain make possible the excess of life on earth from which the Dionysian state must reawaken.

However, 10 years before (Human, All Too Human, 1878) he wrote:

Wherever progress is to ensue, deviating natures are of greatest importance. Every progress of the whole must be preceded by a partial weakening. The strongest natures retain the type, the weaker ones help to advance it. [..] Something similar also happens in the individual. There is rarely a degeneration, a truncation, or even a vice or any physical or moral loss without an advantage somewhere else. In a warlike and restless clan, for example, the sicklier man may have occasion to be alone, and may therefore become quieter and wiser; the one-eyed man will have one eye the stronger; the blind man will see deeper inwardly, and certainly hear better. To this extent, the famous theory of the survival of the fittest does not seem to me to be the only viewpoint from which to explain the progress of strengthening of a man or of a race.

His point of view on sickness and health, in particular, opposed him to the concept of biological "adaptation", forged by Spencer's "survival of the fittest" concept. He criticized both Ernst Haeckel, Spencer, and Darwin, sometimes under the same banner . Nietzsche thought that, in specific cases, sickness was necessary and even helpful: "The person who makes us ill appears to us nowadays to be more important even than medical people and "saviours." Himself affected by periods of intense sickness, he conceived health as a point of view on sickness, and vice-versa . He qualified himself both as a "decadent" and as the reverse of a decadent .

Furthermore, Nietzsche adamantly opposed the concept of a "will to live" (conatus in classical philosophy, or Schopenhauer's Wille zum Leben, "Will to Life"), which was at the foundation of Herbert Spencer's theorisation of the "survival of the fittest". He opposed to this concept the Wille zur Macht. In an aphorism titled "Anti-Darwin," he wrote:

"As for the famous "struggle for existence," so far it seems to me to be asserted rather than proved. It occurs, but as an exception; the total appearance of life is not the extremity, not starvation, but rather riches, profusion, even absurd squandering — and where there is struggle, it is a struggle for power. One should not mistake Malthus for nature.
Assuming, however, that there is such a struggle for existence — and, indeed, it occurs — its result is unfortunately the opposite of what Darwin's school desires, and of what one might perhaps desire with them — namely, in favor of the strong, the privileged, the fortunate exceptions. The species do not grow in perfection: the weak prevail over the strong again and again, for they are the great majority — and they are also more intelligent. Darwin forgot the spirit (that is English!); the weak have more spirit. One must need spirit to acquire spirit; one loses it when one no longer needs it. Whoever has strength dispenses with the spirit ("Let it go!" they think in Germany today; "the Reich must still remain to us"). It will be noted that by "spirit" I mean care, patience, cunning, simulation, great self-control, and everything that is mimicry (the latter includes a great deal of so-called virtue).

He reversed the Darwinist's theory of evolution, as he considered that far from improving the species, evolution lead to the improvement of the "weak" and of the "decadent." Nietzsche read Friedrich Albert Lange's History of Materialism (Geschichte des Materialismus), who criticized Darwin's gradualism . Nietzsche opposed the finalist and teleological conception inherent in Darwin's theory of evolution.

Although Nietzsche alluded many times to atavism and was concerned by the problems of heredity, he also criticized them, for instance in an October 1888 revision to Ecce Homo:

"All prevailing concepts about degrees of consanguinity [Verwandtschafts-Grade] are utter physiological nonsense. Even today the Pope insists on trafficking in such absurdity. One is least akin to one's parents: it would be the utmost mark of vulgarity to be related to one's parents. Higher natures have their origins infinitely farther back, from them a great deal had to be accumulated, saved, and hoarded over long periods of time. The great individuals are the oldest: I do not understand it, but Julius Caesar could be my father—or Alexander, this Dionysus incarnate ... At the very moment I am writing this, the mail brings me a Dionysus-head ...

Nietzsche's criticisms of anti-Semitism and nationalism

Although Nietzsche has famously been misrepresented as a predecessor to Nazism, he harshly criticized anti-Semitism, pan-Germanism and nationalism. Thus, he broke with his editor in 1886 because of opposition to his anti-Semitic stances, and his rupture with Richard Wagner, expressed in The Case of Wagner and Nietzsche Contra Wagner (both written in 1888), had much to do with Wagner's endorsement of pan-Germanism and anti-Semitism — and also of his rallying to Christianity. In a March 29, 1887 letter to Theodor Fritsch, he mocked anti-Semitics, Fritsch, Eugen Dühring, Wagner, Ebrard , Wahrmund, and the leading advocate of pan-Germanism, Paul de Lagarde, who would become, along with Wagner and Houston Chamberlain, main official influences of Nazism . This 1887 letter to Fritsch ended by: "— And finally, how do you think I feel when the name Zarathustra is mouthed by anti-Semites? ... "

Section VIII of Beyond Good and Evil, titled "Peoples and Fatherlands", criticized pan-Germanism and patriotism, advocating instead for the unification of Europe (§256, etc.).

In Ecce Homo (1888), he criticized the "German nation", its "will to power (to Empire, to Reich)", thus underscoring an easy misinterpretation of the Wille zur Macht, the conception of Germans as a "race", the "anti-Semitic way of writing history", or of writing "history conform to the German Empire," and stigmatized "nationalism, this national nevrosis from which Europe is sick", this "small politics" . Nietzsche heavily criticized his sister's husband, Bernhard Förster, and his sister, speaking harshly against the "anti-Semitic canaille.": "After I read the name Zarathustra in the anti-Semitic Correspondence my forbearance came to an end. I am now in a position of emergency defense against your spouse's Party. These accursed anti-Semite deformities shall not sully my ideal!!" .

Georges Bataille was one of the first to denounce the deliberate misinterpretation of Nietzsche carried out by Nazis, among whom Alfred Baeumler. He dedicated in January 1937 an issue of Acéphale, titled "Reparations to Nietzsche," to the theme "Nietzsche and the Fascists. ." There, he called Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche "Elisabeth Judas-Förster," recalling Nietzsche's declaration: "To never frequent anyone whom is involved in this bare-faced fraud concerning races."

Nietzsche titled aphorism 377 in the fifth book of The Gay Science (published in 1887) "We who are homeless" (litt. "We who are without Fatherlands" — Heimatlosen), in which he criticized nationalism and patriotism and called himself a "good European". In the second part of this aphorism, which according to Bataille contained the most important parts of Nietzsche's political thought, the thinker of the Eternal Return stated:

"No, we do not love humanity; but on the other hand we are not nearly "German" enough, in the sense in which the word "German" is constantly being used nowadays, to advocate nationalism and race hatred and to be able to take pleasure in the national scabies of the heart and blood poisoning that now leads the nations of Europe to delimit and barricade themselves against each other as if it were a matter of quarantine. For that we are too open-minded, too malicious, too spoiled, also too well-informed, too "traveled": we far prefer to live on mountains, apart, "untimely," in past or future centuries, merely in order to keep ourselves from experiencing the silent rage to which we know we should be condemned as eyewitnesses of politics that are desolating the German spirit by making it vain and that is, moreover, petty politics:—to keep its own creation from immediately falling apart again, is it not finding it necessary to plant it between two deadly hatreds? must it not desire the eternalization of the European system of a lot of petty states? ... We who are homeless are too manifold and mixed racially and in our descent, being "modern men," and consequently do not feel tempted to participate in the mendacious racial self-admiration and racial indecency that parades in Germany today as a sign of a German way of thinking and that is doubly false and obscene among the people of the "historical sense." We are, in one word—and let this be our word of honor!— good Europeans, the heirs of Europe, the rich, oversupplied, but also overly obligated heirs of thousands of years of European spirit: as such, we have also outgrown Christianity and are averse to it, and precisely because we have grown out of it, because our ancestors were Christians who in their Christianity were uncompromisingly upright; for their faith they willingly sacrificed possessions and position, blood and fatherland. We—do the same. For what? For our unbelief? For every kind of unbelief? No, you know better than that, my friends! The hidden Yes in you is stronger than all Nos and Maybes that afflict you and your age like a disease; and when you have to embark on the sea, you emigrants, you, too, are compelled to this by— a faith! ..."

Views on women

Nietzsche's personal relationship with women (his mother, his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, his friend and would-be lover Lou Andreas-Salomé, the fabled "Ariadne", Cosima Wagner, Malwida von Meysenbug, etc.) was complex and conflictual. His views on women have proven contentious in the eyes of some commentators. Insofar as Nietzsche despised the struggle for equal rights, it was only logical that he would prove an opponent to women's emancipation. However, as always in Nietzsche, aphorisms contradict themselves, and some, such as Jacques Derrida, have pointed out to the contrary how Nietzsche criticized the essentialist notion of a "woman in itself," and how he related the theme of women with the theme of veils and truth.

Other commentators have dismissed Nietzsche's comments on women as part of the sexist discourse predominant in contemporary German society. Even Walter Kaufmann has gone so far as to call Nietzsche's remarks on women "more often than not, second-hand and third-rate. These and similar accusations are normally made referring to certain passages from his works where he makes, according to this view, unflattering statements towards women. That Nietzsche also mocked men and manliness in the same way has not prevented charges of sexism and misogyny against him. Robert Holub has underlined how the question of women's emancipation was intertwined with the issue of allowing women to follow the same instruction as men . And since his Untimely Meditations, the question of teaching establishments had become central for Nietzsche. Thus, Helene von Druskowitz, one of the happy few to whom Nietzsche sent the fourth book of Thus Spake Zarathustra, was the second woman to obtain a doctorate in philosophy (on a dissertation of Byron's Don Juan, which reversed the classical view of Don Juan to paint an image of him as seduced by women).

However, at least an aphorism of Beyond Good and Evil clearly contradicts any simple reading of Nietzsche: it distinguishes between two types of genius, "one which above all engenders and seeks to engender, and another which willingly let itself be fructified and brings forth." It goes on to posit an analogy between this feminine and this masculine type of genius among nations, assimilating the Greeks and the French to the feminine genius, and the Jews and the Romans to the masculine type. Finally, it concludes by: "These two kinds of geniuses seek each other like man and woman; but they also misunderstand each other — like man and woman."

There are nevertheless at least two major trends when approaching Nietzsche's contentious views. The one established by Kaufmann can be summarised by his statement: "Nietzsche's writings contain many all-too-human judgements – especially about women – but these are philosophically irrelevant"; although many commentators do not dismiss these perceived shortcomings the way Kaufmann does ("...[Nietzsche's] views on women need no comment except to say they are probably [amongst] the most thoroughly discredited aspects of his thought).

Another approach reads Nietzsche's statements on women as being yet another series of word-games amongst word-games meant to challenge the reader and to incite inspection of the concepts involved; this would be an extension of his re-evaluation of morality characterised by his abandonment of customary moral positions in favour of an appropriation in affirmation of the individual – the "revaluations of all values" that dominated Nietzsche's later works. Spurs by Jacques Derrida, Nietzsche and the Feminine, and Frances Nesbitt Oppel's Nietzsche on Gender: Beyond Man and Woman are some notable examples of proponents of this view. Hence, Derrida claims that for Nietzsche, there is no eternal essence of womanhood.

Nietzsche's view of women is explicitly based upon their role as potential mothers - typical statement is "everything about woman is a riddle, and everything about woman has one solution: that is pregnancy. It is an exultation of womanhood as maternity and privileges pregnancy as a vital human form of creativity, and every element of Nietzsche's characterisation of womanhood refers back to a woman's role as mother. In this way Nietzsche denies the equality of men and woman, holding that they are essentially different. He criticized the struggle for equality of rights as yet another form of "mediocrity" and of the "decadence" brought upon by "democracy." Against this equality, he declares himself in favour of a differential relationship between the masculine and the feminine .

The differences between man and woman are ones of powers at their disposal and means of accomplishing their goals. In this regard the question of whether women are made different to men mainly through nature or by social roles is left ambiguous: Nietzsche makes explicit allowances for how woman's ability to express and surpass herself has been constrained by her position in society. But Nietzsche unwaveringly insists on a necessary distinction between the sexes.
An important point to take into account when reading Nietzsche on women is also the role of Ariadne and Dionysos , as well as his concept of the Eternal Feminine and of amor fati. Derrida has also shown that Nietzsche distinguished between various types of women, old women, young, etc. This categorization is not applied only to "real" women: thus, he qualified Henrik Ibsen as an "old woman" .

Despite Nietzsche's alleged views, his works have been reappropriated by feminists, for instance by Luce Irigaray in Marine Lover: Of Friedrich Nietzsche (1980). Those who take interest in Nietzsche's views on women are offered two contradictory interpretations: some feminist commentators criticize him for placing an irreconcilable difference between the sexes allowing for discrimination against women; others seize upon the opportunity given to feminists by his placement of a positive value in womanhood, one through which woman can achieve value and significance for her life equal to any other.


Perhaps Nietzsche's greatest philosophical legacy lies in his 20th century interpreters, among them Pierre Klossowski, Georges Bataille, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze (and Félix Guattari), and Jacques Derrida. Foucault's later writings, for example, adopt Nietzsche's genealogical method to develop anti-foundationalist theories of power that divide and fragment rather than unite polities (as evinced in the liberal tradition of political theory). The systematic institutionalisation of criminal delinquency, sexual identity and practice, and the mentally ill (to name but a few) are examples used to demonstrate how knowledge or truth is inseparable from the institutions that formulate notions of legitimacy from 'immoralities' such as homosexuality and the like (captured in the famous power-knowledge equation). Deleuze, arguably the foremost of Nietzsche's interpreters, used the much-maligned 'will to power' thesis in tandem with Marxian notions of commodity surplus and Freudian ideas of desire to articulate concepts such the rhizome and other 'outsides' to state power as traditionally conceived.

Certain recent Nietzschean exegetes have emphasized the more untimely and politically controversial aspects of Nietzsche's philosophy. Nietzschean commentator Keith Ansell Pearson has pointed out the absurd hypocrisy of modern egalitarian liberals, socialists, feminists and anarchists claiming Nietzsche as a herald of their own left-wing politics: "The values Nietzsche wishes to subject to a revaluation are largely altruistic and egalitarian values such as pity, self-sacrifice, and equal rights. For Nietzsche, modern politics rests largely on a secular inheritance of Christian values (he interprets the socialist doctrine of equality in terms of a secularization of the Christian belief in the equality of all souls before God" (On the Genealogy of Morality, Ansell-Pearson and Diethe, eds., Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 9). Works such as Bruce Detwiler's Nietzsche and the Politics of Aristocratic Radicalism (University of Chicago Press, 1990), Fredrick Appel's Nietzsche Contra Democracy (Cornell University Press, 1998), and Domenico Losurdo's Nietzsche, il ribelle aristocratico (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2002) challenge the prevalent liberal interpretive consensus on Nietzsche and assert that Nietzsche's elitism was not merely an aesthetic pose but an ideological attack on the widely held belief in equal rights of the modern West, locating Nietzsche in the conservative-revolutionary tradition.


Further reading

  • On Nietzsche's view on women, see Jacques Derrida, Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles, trans. Barbara Harlow (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1979).
  • On Nietzsche and biology, see Barbara Stiegler, Nietzsche et la biologie, PUF, 2001, ISBN 2-13-050742-5.

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