Nietzsche – creator of the Übermensch
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (October 15, 1844 – August 25, 1900) was a 19th-century German philosopher, poet, composer and classical philologist.
In 1854, he began to attend Pforta in Naumburg, but after he showed particular talents in music and language, the internationally recognised Schulpforta admitted him as a pupil, and there he continued his studies from 1858 to 1864.
At Schulpforta (see left), Nietzsche received an important introduction to literature, particularly that of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and for the first time experienced a distance from his family life in a small-town Christian environment.
After graduation in 1864 Nietzsche commenced studies in theology and classical philology at the University of Bonn.
He owed the awakening of his philosophical interest to reading his ‘Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung’ (The World as Will and Representation) and later admitted that he was one of the few thinkers that he respected, dedicating to him his essay ‘Schopenhauer als Erzieher’ (Schopenhauer as Educator), one of his ‘Untimely Meditations’.
In 1866 he read Friedrich Albert Lange’s (see left below) ‘History of Materialism’.
In 1867 Nietzsche signed up for one year of voluntary service with the Prussian artillery division in Naumburg. However, a riding accident in March 1868 left him unfit for service.
With the publication of ‘Menschliches, Allzumenschliches’ – (Human, All Too Human) * – in 1878 (a book of aphorisms on subjects ranging from metaphysics to morality and from religion to the sexes) Nietzsche’s reaction against the pessimistic philosophy of Wagner and Schopenhauer became evident.
Because his illness drove him to find climates more conducive to his health, Nietzsche traveled frequently, and lived until 1889 as an independent author in different cities.
In 1882 Nietzsche published the first part of ‘Die fröhliche Wissenschaft’ ** – (The Joyful Science).
Nietzsche and Salomé spent the summer together in Tautenburg in Thuringia, often with Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth as a chaperone.
Here he wrote the first part of ‘Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen’ (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) *** in only ten days.
In 1886 Nietzsche broke with his editor, Ernst Schmeitzner.
He then printed ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ at his own expense, and issued in 1886–1887 second editions of his earlier works (‘The Birth of Tragedy’, ‘Human, All Too Human’, ‘The Dawn’, and ‘The Joyful Science), accompanied by new prefaces in which he reconsidered his earlier works. Thereafter, he saw his work as completed for a time and hoped that soon a readership would develop.
In fact, interest in Nietzsche’s thought did increase at this time, if rather slowly and in a way hardly perceived by him.
During these years Nietzsche met Meta von Salis, Carl Spitteler, and also Gottfried Keller.
In 1886 his sister Elisabeth married Bernhard Förster (see left) and traveled to Paraguay to found Nueva Germania, a “Germanic” colony.
Through correspondence, Nietzsche’s relationship with Elisabeth continued on the path of conflict and reconciliation, but they would meet again only after his collapse.
He continued to have frequent and painful attacks of illness, which made prolonged work impossible. In 1887 Nietzsche wrote the polemic ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’.
During the same year Nietzsche encountered the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, with whom he felt an immediate kinship.
He also exchanged letters with Hippolyte Taine, and then also with Georg Brandes.
Brandes, who had started to teach the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard in the 1870s, wrote to Nietzsche asking him to read Kierkegaard, to which Nietzsche replied that he would come to Copenhagen and read Kierkegaard with him.
However, before fulfilling this undertaking, he slipped too far into sickness.
In the beginning of 1888, in Copenhagen, Brandes delivered one of the first lectures on Nietzsche’s philosophy.
He overestimated the increasing response to his writings, especially to the recent polemic, ‘Der Fall Wagner’ – (The Case of Wagner).
Mental Collapse & Death
In March 1890 Franziska removed Nietzsche from the clinic, and in May 1890 brought him to her home in Naumburg.
In 1893 Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth returned from Nueva Germania (in Paraguay) following the suicide of her husband.
She read and studied Nietzsche’s works, and piece by piece took control of them and of their publication.Overbeck eventually suffered dismissal, and Gast finally cooperated.
After the death of Franziska in 1897 Nietzsche lived in Weimar, where Elisabeth cared for him and allowed people, including Rudolf Steiner (who in 1895 had written one of the first books praising Nietzsche – see right)) to visit her uncommunicative brother.
Elisabeth at one point went so far as to employ Steiner–at a time when he was still an ardent fighter against any mysticism–as a tutor to help her to understand her brother’s philosophy. Nietzsche’s mental illness was originally diagnosed as tertiary syphilis, in accordance with a prevailing medical paradigm of the time.
Although most commentators regard his breakdown as unrelated to his philosophy Georges Bataille drops dark hints (“‘man incarnate’ must also go mad”) and René Girard’s postmortem psychoanalysis posits a worshipful rivalry with Richard Wagner.
The diagnosis of syphilis was challenged, and manic-depressive illness with periodic psychosis, followed by vascular dementia was put forward by Cybulska.
In 1898 and 1899 Nietzsche suffered at least two strokes, which partially paralysed him and left him unable to speak or walk.
After contracting pneumonia in mid-August 1900 he had another stroke during the night of August 24 / August 25, and died about noon on August 25.
Elisabeth had him buried beside his father at the church in Röcken bei Lützen.
His friend, Peter Gast (see right), gave his funeral oration, proclaiming: “Holy be your name to all future generations!“
Nietzsche’s works remain controversial, and there is widespread disagreement about their interpretation and significance.
A few of the themes that Nietzsche scholars have devoted the most attention to include Nietzsche’s views on morality, his view that “God is dead” (and along with it any sort of God’s-eye view on the world thus leading to perspectivism), his notions of the ‘will to power‘ and ‘Übermensch‘, and his suggestion of ‘eternal recurrence‘.
Der Wille zur Macht
A basic element in Nietzsche’s philosophical outlook is ‘der Wille zur Macht’ – (the will to power), which provides a basis for understanding human behavior. In a wide sense of a term, the will to power is a more important element than pressure for adaptation or survival.
Nietzsche’s notion of the will to power can also be viewed as a response to Schopenhauer’s “Will.”
In addition to Schopenhauer’s psychological views, Nietzsche contrasts his notion of the will to power with many of the other most popular psychological views of his day, such as that of utilitarianism.
Another concept important to an understanding of Nietzsche’s thought is the Übermensch.
While interpretations of Nietzsche’s Übermensch vary wildly, here is one of his quotations from Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Prologue, §§3–4):
“I teach you the superman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? … All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood, and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?
What is ape to man? A laughing stock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be that to superman: a laughingstock or painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape…. The superman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the superman shall be the meaning of the earth…. Man is a rope, tied between beast and the superman—a rope over an abyss … what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”
Many political leaders of the twentieth century were at least superficially familiar with Nietzsche’s ideas, although it is not always possible to determine whether or not they actually read his work. It is not known for sure if Hitler ever read Nietzsche, and if he did, his reading was not extensive, although he was a frequent visitor to the Nietzsche museum in Weimar, and did use expressions of Nietzsche’s, such as “lords of the earth” in ‘Mein Kampf’, and of course terms such as ‘der Wille zur Macht’ and ‘Übermensch’ were essential to Volkisch ideology.
(Human, All Too Human) – subtitled ‘Ein Buch für freie Geister’ – (A Book for Free Spirits), was originally published in 1878.
Nietzsche also distinguishes the obscurantism of the metaphysicians and theologians from the more subtle obscurantism of Kant’s critical philosophy and modern philosophical skepticism, claiming that obscurantism is that which obscures existence rather than obscures ideas alone: “The essential element in the black art of obscurantism is not that it wants to darken individual understanding but that it wants to blacken our picture of the world, and darken our idea of existence.”
‘Menschliches, Allzumenschliches’ was used by archivist Max Oehler, a strong supporter of Hitler, as supposed evidence of Nietzsche’s support for nationalism and anti-Semitism.
** ‘Die fröhliche Wissenschaft’
The ‘Die fröhliche Wissenschaft’ was first published in 1882 and followed by a second edition, which was published after the completion of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil, in 1887. This substantial expansion includes a fifth book and an appendix of songs. It was noted by Nietzsche to be “the most personal of all [his] books”, and contains the greatest number of poems in any of his published works.
“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’ … 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.’ ” – [§341]
*** ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’
‘Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen’ – (Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None) is a philosophical novel by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, composed in four parts between 1883 and 1885.
The book chronicles the fictitious travels and pedagogy of Zarathustra.
The name of this character is taken from the ancient prophet usually known in English as Zoroaster (Avestan: Zara?uštra), the Persian founder of Zoroastrianism.
Nietzsche is clearly portraying a “new” or “different” Zarathustra, one who turns traditional morality on its head.
He goes on to characterize “what the name of Zarathustra means in my mouth, the mouth of the first immoralist:”
Zarathustra has a simple characterisation and plot, narrated sporadically throughout the text.
It possesses a unique experimental style, one that is, for instance, evident in newly invented “dithyrambs” narrated or sung by Zarathustra.
Likewise, the separate ‘Dithyrambs of Dionysus’ was written in autumn 1888, and printed with the full volume in 1892, as the corollaries of Zarathustra’s “abundance”.
Some speculate that Nietzsche intended to write about final acts of creation and destruction brought about by Zarathustra. However, the book lacks a finale to match that description; its actual ending focuses more on Zarathustra recognizing that his legacy is beginning to perpetuate, and consequently choosing to leave the higher men to their own devices in carrying his legacy forth.
Zarathustra also contains the famous dictum “God is dead”, which had appeared earlier in ‘Die fröhliche Wissenschaft’.
In his autobiographical work ‘Ecce Homo’, Nietzsche states that the book’s underlying concept is discussed within “the penultimate section of the fourth book” of ‘Die fröhliche Wissenschaft’ (Ecce Homo, Kaufmann). It is the eternal recurrence of the same events.
This concept first occurred to Nietzsche while he was walking in Switzerland through the woods along the lake of Silvaplana (close to Surlej); he was inspired by the sight of a gigantic, towering, pyramidal rock.
Before Zarathustra, Nietzsche had mentioned the concept in the fourth book of ‘Die fröhliche Wissenschaft’ (e.g., sect. 341); this was the first public proclamation of the notion by him.
Apart from its salient presence in Zarathustra, it is also echoed throughout Nietzsche’s work.
At any rate, it is by Zarathustra’s transfiguration that he embraces eternity, that he at last ascertains “the supreme will to power“.
This inspiration finds its expression with Zarathustra’s ‘Song of Midnight’, featured twice in the book, once near the story’s close:
“I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?
“All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? 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. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape.
“Whoever is the wisest among you is also a mere conflict and cross between plant and ghost. But do I bid you become ghosts or plants?
“Behold, I teach you the overman! The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go!”
It serves as a parallel and supplement to the various philosophical ideas present in Nietzsche’s body of work.
He has, however, said that “among my writings my Zarathustra stands to my mind by itself” (Ecce Homo, Preface, sec. 4, Kaufmann).
Emphasizing its centrality and its status as his magnum opus, it is stated by Nietzsche that:
‘With [Thus Spoke Zarathustra] I have given mankind the greatest present that has ever been made to it so far. This book, with a voice bridging centuries, is not only the highest book there is, the book that is truly characterized by the air of the heights—the whole fact of man lies beneath it at a tremendous distance—it is also the deepest, born out of the innermost wealth of truth, an inexhaustible well to which no pail descends without coming up again filled with gold and goodness.’
Nietzsche injects myriad ideas into the book, but there are a few recurring themes.
The overman (Übermensch), a self-mastered individual who has achieved his full power, is an almost omnipresent idea in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Man as a race is merely a bridge between animals and the overman. Nietzsche also makes a point that the overman is not an end result for a person, but more the journey toward self-mastery.
The eternal recurrence, found elsewhere in Nietzsche’s writing, is also mentioned. The eternal recurrence is the idea that all events that have happened will happen again, infinitely many times. Such a reality can serve as the litmus test for an overman. Faced with the knowledge that he would repeat every action that he has taken, an overman would be elated as he has no regrets and loves life.
The ‘will to power‘ is the fundamental component of human nature.
Everything we do is an expression of the will to power.
The will to power is a psychological analysis of all human action and is accentuated by self-overcoming and self-enhancement.
Contrasted with living for procreation, pleasure, or happiness, the will to power is the summary of all man’s struggle against his surrounding environment as well as his reason for living in it.
The book in several passages expresses loathing for sentiments of human pity, compassion, indulgence and mercy towards a victim, which are regarded as the greatest sin and most insidious danger.
Part of Nietzsche’s reactionary thought is also that the creature he most sincerely loathes is the spirit of revolution, and its hatred for the anarchist and rebel.
Many criticisms of Christianity can be found in ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’, in particular Christian values of good and evil and its belief in an afterlife.
Nietzsche sees the complacency of Christian values as fetters to the achievement of overman as well as on the human spirit.
The book inspired Richard Strauss (see left) to compose the tone poem ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’, which he designated “freely based on Friedrich Nietzsche.”
Zarathustra’s ‘Midnight Song’ is set as part of Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony (1895-96), originally under the title ‘What Man Tells Me’, or alternatively ‘What the Night tells me’ (of Man).
Frederick Delius (see right) based his major choral-orchestral work ‘A Mass of Life’ (1904-5) on texts from Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
The work ends with a setting of Zarathustra’s ‘Midnight Song’ which Delius had composed earlier, in 1898, as a separate work.