Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Positioned at the forefront of perhaps the most significant shift in Western history, having both predicted the cause and consequence, and going on to provide grandiose, revolutionary ideas as possible solutions, Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most influential and significant thinkers of modern history. The particular crossroads that Nietzsche stands at is one where the primary path of Western religious faith began to crumble and cave in, leaving a massive, empty crater at the end of life’s suffering, and what would seem like only one alternative path towards that of pessimism and nihilism. His life’s work would undertake this newly emerging issue and attempt to forge a new, third path away from both religious faith and nihilism, and towards new meaning and human value. Nietzsche was born in 1844 in Saxony, Prussia, which is now part of eastern Germany. He was born to a modest family, living an ordinary, sheltered early childhood. His father, Carl Ludwig Nietzsche, was the town’s Lutheran pastor, which would immediately immerse young Nietzsche into the Christian faith. However, simultaneous to being introduced to it, it would soon be challenged and tested as his father, the same man who practiced and preached of God, was diagnosed with a terminal brain disease. For a year, his father suffered horribly and then died at the young age of just 35. And the following year, Nietzsche’s younger brother, Ludwig, also died. This dichotomy of his religious foundation and early exposure to the irreconcilable, reasonless pain and suffering experienced by good, underserving people, would likely lay some of the groundwork for what would ultimately become the basis of Nietzsche’s later work. Following a fairly somber, serious, and lonely childhood, Nietzsche would go on to study theology at the University of Bonn. Both in early schooling and university, he would show strong intellectual promise, excelling especially well in Christian theology. However, following just one semester at university, as he became increasingly critical and intellectually sharp, and after being exposed to various critiques of Christianity, Nietzsche would have no choice but to let go of his Christian faith, fully shedding the skin of his innocence and blind devotion. From here, he would go on to study philology, the study of the history of language, at the University of Leipzig. Here, he would do so well that while still only in his mid-twenties, he would go on to be hired as a professor of classical philology at the University of Basel, becoming the youngest professor to ever be hired, still to this day. After only a few years of teaching, though, Nietzsche would leave his position, partly because of his growing dissatisfaction and sense of constraint within academia, and partly because of his growing poor health, which he had accumulated by a combination of genetic ailments and what is believed to have been a case syphilis that he contracted at a brothel. From here, he would go on to live a fairly isolated life, traveling around Europe, moving to and from different climates most suitable for his poor-health, and living off his small university pension. He would live primarily and most notably in the Swiss Alps, where he would spend the majority of his remaining, sane life. Throughout this time, in between spells of being bed-ridden by his ailments, a devastating failed love ordeal, degrading friendships and family relations, and depressive and nihilistic states, Nietzsche would spend most of his time walking, thinking, and writing, finding solace, meaning, and reason to continue through his pursuit of philosophy. During this time, he would produce his most influential works, including: Human All Too Human, The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, and On the Genealogy of Morals. In these works, Nietzsche would lay both the groundwork and early constructions of a new sort of philosophy: a philosophy that would essentially loosen the bolts on all contemporary certainties, all notions of good and evil, all knowledge of true and false, right and wrong. "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives…Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?" This is perhaps one of Nietzsche’s most quoted and important passages. It is in this line: “God is dead." that we find, not Nietzsche’s celebration of humanity’s lost faith, but his stark, intense concern of warning for what it meant. The collapse of Christian faith brought with it, in Nietzsche’s mind, the collapse of everything built on it: the whole of European morality, its rationales, and its values. He both predicted and feared that with this collective revelation, without sufficient replacement, humanity would be left to struggle with no clear system or meaning and devolve into widespread despair in the form of or nihilism. One of Nietzsche’s key ideas at the foundation of his attempt to resolve this issue is the recognition that there is in fact no universal, objective truth to be known. “There are no facts, only interpretations.” he wrote. Nietzsche denied the very construct of any sort of capital T truth and suggested that all attempts to find one were woefully misguided and actually the source of disconnect preventing modern man from rediscovering any meaning in life. The pursuit of universal objectivity or meaning beyond this life took the spirit out of the present, earthly human experience of meaning, which is inherently subjective, independent, and expressive. Because of this, Nietzsche would direct his attention primarily to the arts and humanities, believing that creative acts and experiences, be it things like music, philosophy, literature, theater, and so on, could be used as essential means to communicate deeper truths and fill the void of higher connection and meaning. Although, as Nietzsche explored this theory, he would find that cultural arts and humanities were susceptible to becoming dried out, academic, and/or commodified, often losing their luster and dependability. From here, he would turn his attention towards creating a philosophy that detached the individual from dependence on any collective experience or cultural mechanisms, and rather, focused on the individual pursuit of creative expression and subjective greatness, placing the creation of meaning squarely in the hands of each individual. This philosophy would be embodied in what Nietzsche would term the ubermensch, or overman, or sometimes translated as the superman, which he would first introduce in his book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The overman is described as a sort of defiant, confident, independent individual who pursues their personal desires with vigor and dignifies their independent beliefs unapologetically; one who deviates from the collective, exhibits strategic selfishness, and acts with aggressiveness and grandiose. The reason for such characteristics was justified in Nietzsche’s view by the fact that a new morality that opposed the moral views rooted in Christianity, which praised weakness and modesty, was needed to better suit the natural condition of human experience, which he felt was comprised and requiring of the desire for vigor, power, and greatness. This view is not without valid critiques and invalid misinterpretations. However, perhaps what is more important than Nietzsche’s image of the overman is what the concept serves to represent. In slightly broader terms, Nietzsche sets up the overman to function as a sort of idealized version of one’s self–an image of a perfect and powerful being who has overcome all their fears and deficiencies, which one can and should set goals to strive towards. Of course, as an ideal, it cannot ever truly be reached, but that is functionally the point. Nietzsche proposed that the world, including the human, operates off of what he called the will to power: an insatiable desire in each living being to manifest power. “The world is the will to power–and nothing besides.” he wrote. And according to Nietzsche, this will to power is manifested in the desire for personal growth and satisfied in the pursuance of said growth. It is important to note here that his notion of power is not necessarily referring to physical strength nor power and dominance over others, but rather, power over one’s self. Psychological and spiritual strength in the form of self-mastery and continuous growth represents the ultimate synchronization with the will to power, for Nietzsche, and thus, the ultimate synchronization with life itself. The desire and striving towards the ideal of the overman serves as perpetual fuel to this process of self-growth, as one works through a continued cycle of self-dissatisfaction, self-improvement, and self-re-discovery, over and over. For Nietzsche, this process, which he would term “self-overcoming,” is fundamental to answering and resolving the problem of meaning and value in life. So long as one establishes their goals of growth in the name of what they deem an idealized life-affirming version of themselves, the process transmutes the suffering of life into something worthwhile and personally redeemable; a sort of alchemy of the spirit that affirms life in the face of its inevitable suffering. “If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how." Nietzsche wrote. Unlike his primary predecessor, Arthur Schopenhauer, who proposed that suffering is best minimized and avoided to the best of one’s ability, Nietzsche argued that suffering is, rather, a good thing to be leaned into, embraced, and used as fuel towards the amassing of strength and psychological power. Life is in fact inevitable suffering, and so, it is not matter of if, but for what. “The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse that layover mankind so far.” Nietzsche wrote. While continuing to write and live an increasingly isolated life in the mountains, still in the early stages of some of his most ambitious philosophical undertakings, Nietzsche would begin to show increasing signs of declining mental health. At forty-four years old, after seeing a horse being flogged in a street by its owner, he experienced a mental breakdown, rushing over to the horse, hugging and consoling it, and yelling, “I understand you, I understand you.” This strange episode, which marked his last moments out of apparent lucidity, appeared to be an act of complete contradiction to his own philosophy: pity, weakness, and compassion. Soon after, Nietzsche would dip into complete madness, eventually falling into a state of catatonia. One of the most powerful minds of modern history seemingly collapsed under the weight of itself. Whether the cause was organic, latent consequences to his contracted ailments, or the consequence of a mind that pursued too far into itself, becoming stuck on its way back out, is unknown. Before ever coming back out, in 1900, at the young age of fifty-five, Nietzsche died of a stroke. During his lifetime, according to his own standards, Nietzsche might likely be considered a failure. Prior to losing his sanity, he had made very little of himself and saw very little, if not no success. His books didn’t sell, and he never really garnered any notable respect or recognition. But following his death, of course, his work would take-off, soon gaining massive notice, respect, and worldwide following–some of which unfortunately would lead to horrible, misguided, and ill-conceived applications. However, today, and more generally, Nietzsche’s work remains potent, important, and redeemably engrained in modern thinking. His quotes, aphorisms, and ideas echo through culture every day, both literally and symbolically. And so, in a fittingly ironic way, just how Nietzsche suggested that we must symbolically die throughout life so that we can get of our own way and become who we really are, sometimes sacrificing our self, our personal preservation, health, or sanity in the process of something greater, perhaps Nietzsche’s life and death was just that: a process of self-overcoming towards self-sacrifice towards something greater. Of course, Nietzsche’s ideas aren’t without valid critiques, including this notion of self-overcoming, sacrifice, and greatness. Although his assessments and predictions of modern issues are arguably quite accurate, his resolutions aren’t necessarily all-serving. Is suffering in the continual pursuit of desire and self-destruction in the name of growth towards an unattainable end goal really a good thing? And how can one see it as a good thing if they do not? How can one create a life affirming interpretation of life if their interpretation of life is not affirming? In other words, if one sees life as negative or meaningless, to try to create goals or place themselves on such an interpretation, only brings them back to square one, in need of some truth or meaning beyond themselves; something other than what one sees, has, or experiences, which they cannot have. And furthermore, if one does not agree with the initial premise–that suffering is good in the name of progress–then the rest might merely be misdirection. Of course, being a philosopher whose work doesn’t necessarily follow any linear or systematic structure, and can even contradict itself at times, Nietzsche’s ideas are open to multiple interpretations. And of course, all the aforementioned is merely a single, very brief one. And more importantly, seeing as how his philosophy caters to this open-ended nature, and is arguably not a guide to think in a certain way, but rather, a guide to think in one’s own way, Nietzsche leaves us the space to, even if we disagree with him, do just as he did and pave a new direction for ourself.