“God is dead.” The man who penned what is quite possibly the most famous line in the history of philosophy does not appear to have done so lightly, or with glee. This may be because he recognised that without a concept of the divine, humanity is as good as it gets… A brilliant intellectual plagued by ill health he suffered a complete mental collapse at the age of 44, from which he never recovered.
To date I’ve read only one of his works, ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ (1883), which isn’t so much an exploration or explanation of his philosophy as an illustration of it. It’s a pretty grim picture: the philosopher Zarathustra lives happily enough in seclusion in a cave on a mountain-top. Every now and again he interacts with people but it seldom ends well. This is because he doesn’t really think very much of them – he is awaiting the advent of the ‘superman’ – and can’t help telling them so. At length.
Nietzsche was born near Leipzig in Germany, to a teacher turned Lutheran pastor, Carl Ludwig Nietzsche, and his wife Franziska. He was well educated, including Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and French, and although his grades were not exceptional his mind certainly was. At the age of 24 he was appointed to a professorship in philology at Basle University. Although he was not formally schooled in philosophy he became fascinated with the subject after reading ‘The World as Will and Representation’ by Schopenhauer.
While Nietzsche accepted Schopenhauer’s fundamental argument that the world was a godless and irrational place, without purpose and full of suffering, and lacking any basis for morality or values (nihilism), he believed that the case was not hopeless. Rather, he saw a way forward through human development towards a more advanced state – the ‘Superman’. Although this concept was subsequently appropriated by the Nazi regime in Germany, Nietzsche’s original concept was not racist. Elitist, yes, but not racist.
The Superman is more than just a very clever, or strong, human. He (or, theoretically, she, but women are one of the many groups of which Nietzsche didn’t seem to think much) is the height of creativity, joy, and power. He is also, however, beyond the morality of good and evil, instead judging on the aesthetic basis of good and bad, and Nietzsche seems to have had a particular dislike for the value of compassion, which he saw as having a weakening effect and thus being beneath the worth of the Superman. This doesn’t stop Zarathustra, in the final chapters of ‘Thus Spake…’, from setting out to answer a cry for help. We humans are complex creatures.
In wrestling with the implications of a world without not only God but also without a shared concept of ‘absolute’ values and morality, and in which science would ultimately fail to provide a new set of answers to our deepest questions, Nietzsche was not only a philosopher but something of a prophet, one of the first to foresee some of the underlying struggles which would shape the Western world in the 20th century.
He died of pneumonia after suffering several strokes, in August 1900, and was buried beside his father at the church in Rocken bei Lutzen, Germany – the town of his birth. His most significant works include ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ (1872), ‘The Gay Science’ (1882,1887), ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ (1883-5), ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ (1886), and ‘On The Genealogy of Morals’ (1887). In all honesty, I probably won’t be reading any of them any time soon, but that’s just me.