In a nutshell: Human beings have a natural and healthy urge to be creative and powerful, and morality only suppresses and distorts this.
Nietzsche was born in Röcken, Prussia, in 1844. He was considered so brilliant that at only 24, he was made a professor at the University of Basle. But after this promising early start, illness and an independent spirit saw Nietzsche fall outside the mainstream. His dismissal of philosophy as an objective science allowed him to write in a brilliantly personal, often mad, style. His insights today still seem very fresh, and his emotion-charged, nontechnical prose could not be more different to today’s dry, overspecialized academic writings.
The common reaction to reading Nietzsche is shock, but there are few philosophers who can be more entertaining or who carry the potential to really change your view of things. Beyond Good and Evil (1886) is a good place to start. Below are a few key points.
Why the Obsession with Truth?
Nietzsche sees the history of philosophy as an expression of the “will to Truth,” yet this obsession with truth is simply an arbitrary prejudice. Why are philosophers not as much interested in untruth or uncertainty, he wonders. “In spite of all the value which may belong to the true, the positive and the unselfish…a higher and more fundamental value for life should generally be assigned to pretense, to the will to delusion, to selfishness and cupidity.” Perhaps good and evil are more knitted together than we think, he suggests, although (in the interests of purity) we like to see them as separate.
The Will to Power…and Free Will
Nietzsche thought that psychologists were wrong in saying that people and animals were governed by the self-preservation or survival instinct. Rather, their chief aim is to discharge their strength. This is his famous Will to Power: We want to keep living not for its own sake, but so we can express our powers.
Related to the Will to Power is Nietzsche’s concept of the ubermensch (“superman”), the sovereign actor who is free of all the usual moral conventions and ways of seeing. Nietzsche believes people think too much, when they should give free reign to their instinctive Will to create and dominate. The idea of free will is a Christian nicety based on a belief in the sanctity of every soul, when in fact, man is a higher animal that grasps what it wants from life. The nature of the ubermensch is not contemplation or rationalizing, but energetic grabbing, doing, and creating.
The Real Philosopher
The conventional view of the philosopher is that he is wise, prudent, and lives apart from normal life. But Nietzsche draws an alternative picture: “The genuine philosopher…lives ‘unphilosophically,’ ‘unwisely,’ and above all, ‘imprudently,’ and feels the obligation and burden of a hundred attempts and temptations of life—he risks himself constantly.” Real philosophers should be “the bad conscience” of their time and culture.
NIetzsche asks: “Is greatness possible, nowadays?” Modern society is “a general war against everything rare, strange, and privileged, against the higher man, the higher soul, the higher duty, the higher responsibility.” The modern person seeks a life free from fear or pain, which is a sad dereliction of their potential. Instead, we should be throwing ourselves into life at whatever risk and without getting permission from anyone. He called Christianity a “slave morality” because it emphasized “the sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of spirit” and made the believer into a self-deriding shadow of what they could be.
Good and evil, Nietzsche believed, are a creation of humankind. This fact frees us to live according to our natural wish to be more and have more, not worrying too much about other people. Selfishness, including evasion, distrust, and a love of dissembling and irony, are signs of health. It is the people always after some pure and objective absolute (whether in religion or philosophy) who are the sick ones.
Nietzsche’s disavowal of the traditional philosophical project—the search for fundamental truths—had a big influence on existentialism and later, the deconstructionist philosophies, which made us see that actively creating an authentic life is more valuable and logical than living according to a set of imaginary moral “truths.”
Tomorrow…Karl Popper and how theories becomes accepted—and falsified.
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