friedrich nieitzscheOverview

Nietzsche was a splendidly impassioned writer who denounced social beliefs as empty fictions. Much of the work may have been a reaction to cramped personal circumstances, but the brilliance of Nietzsche's insights, and his championing of aesthetics as an alternative to pallid rationalism continues to be influential in continental thought, not least in literary theory.



Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) had no formal philosophic training but was a philologist — a brilliant philologist, becoming professor of philology at Basle when 24. He published The Birth of Tragedy in the year of his retirement from the university on the grounds of ill-health in 1879, and then a handful of subsequently very influential books until madness overtook him in 1889.

Nietzsche was not an philosopher on the Anglo-American pattern. He set out no carefully-argued position, nor composed any all-embracing system. His writing, with its cultural preoccupations, sweeping generalizations and attack on rationalism, is as much psychology, social comment and literature as philosophy. His first book distinguished two strains in Greek art, the reflective Apollonian and the rhapsodic Dionysian. The Human, All Too Human of 1878 was a volume of aphorisms and reflections. This style of thinking he developed further in Thus Spoke Zarathrusta (1883-5), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) and finally a great mass of work in 1888 that were subsequently published as The Will to Power {1}

Nietzsche's Thought

Nietzsche came of age in the disillusion that followed the failure of the 1848 revolutions. Philosophy had lost its direction, failing to emancipate European thought from eighteenth century dogmatism, and Nietzsche was not content to seek consolation in academic study. He had either to make rationalism more cogent and persuasive to a capitalist society, or reject rationalism altogether. He chose the latter, championing the wild, the irrational, the aristocratic individual with strength to follow his impulses. Given the autonomous, threefold categories of post-Kantian thought — art, knowledge and morality — Nietzsche inflated art, making an aesthetics to challenge logic and the slave mentality of the masses. {2}

Many of society's deepest beliefs in law, religion, philosophy, and culture are fictions, declared Nietzsche. Possibly necessary for society's sense of well-being and common purpose, they nonetheless rest only on convention. The strong man will reject such secondhand notions, fashioning his own morality and purpose. No one can establish everything for himself, and the authentic man will take responsibility for what he does accept — rather than excuse himself by quoting authorities or pointing to the incomplete nature of his investigations. The search for knowledge is commonly a search for power, and absolute truth is unobtainable, a dream of academic establishments. Mathematics and science in particular led to barbarism, and the twentieth century would exact a terrible price for the unexamined optimism of its promoters.

Like Schopenhauer, whose will to live he made into his Will to Power, Nietzsche was a pessimist. Life was boring, trivial, shallow, and had been since Greek rationalism and Christianity forgiveness. Greek tragedy had once given a deep-rooted sense of significance to life. By combining the terrifying Dionysian aspect of lawlessness with Apollonian control, the Greeks had created great works of art that enable societies "to look into the abyss". Socrates and Plato had destroyed all that, promoting reason as one true panacea, and pushing music, poetry and drama to the background as entertainments, dangerous if regarded as more than artisan skills.

This subterfuge we should attack, thought Nietzsche. Reasoning has its uses, giving us advantage in the competitive struggle for life, but it is a fiction all the same. Each individual has his own perspective, making truth relative. And if there are many truths, there cannot be one truth, so that truth as we commonly conceive it is an illusion. A logical disaster of an argument? Well, then, logic itself was a fiction.{3}

That being the case, thought Nietzsche, the language of the Enlightenment with its pious hopes of a social order without oppression or dogmatism — egalitarian, cooperative and consensual — is a fraud. The weak live in fear, and their beliefs and value systems were only pitiful attempts to outlaw the vigour and moral superiority of the more splendidly endowed. The practical consequences of Nietzsche's Will to Power weren't precisely spelled out, making links to Nazism a pointless debate, but the real world where free aristocratic beings moved and had their being was not adequately represented by the pallid language of academia. Hence Nietzsche's aphoristic brilliance, which served as a model for Freud's self-aggrandizement and for Foucault's glittering style. Breathing passion and poetry, they can afford to ignore exact, humdrum sense.


First Nietzsche's equation of truth with power. Many are tempted to agree: the disadvantaged, social minorities, those who read Foucault rather than political theory. {4}. But how can societies progress if they cannot distinguish ends from means? Both Stalin and Hitler wielded extraordinary power, but few now accept their entitlement, or the justifications offered.

Then the anti-rationalism generally. If the language of civilized discourse — one that aims at clear exposition, respect for opponent's arguments, scrupulous attention to the evidence — is simply wishful thinking, then languages that overcome these shortcomings and carve psychic matter at the joints, will be irredeemably subject to the subterfuges, the deceits and misrepresentations of ill-thought-out desires: a Pyrrhic victory. For if language makes itself true to such working then it conveys no reliable information. Ultimately, as Nietzsche himself realized, the view saws off the branch on which it sits.

Perhaps that's to misunderstand Nietzsche. {5} He opposed traditional metaphysics, a belief that philosophy or any other intellectual enterprise could encompass truth. We can only interpret, from a certain position at a certain time, and therefore never finally or for sure. So Nietzsche's approach, which often appears unsystematic, drawing at random on the models and terminology of literature, social and natural sciences, economics and psychology. The search is not for truth, but for life — in strength, abundance and variety. We all of us achieve some measure of understanding and knowledge, and are obliged to do so, following and expanding whatever line of enquiry seems appropriate.

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References Cited

1. Richard Schacht's Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm entry in Ted Honderich's The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995), and Walter Kaufman's Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1974).
2. pp. 241 and 258 of J. Merquoir's From Prague to Paris (1986), and A. Megill's Prophets of Extremism: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida (1985).
3. Chapter 7 in J. Teichman and G. White's An Introduction to Modern European Philosophy (1995).
4. R.S. Downie's entry Authority in Honderich 1995.
5. Richard Schacht's Nietzsche (1983).

Internet Resources

1. Nietzsche Chronicle. Sep. 2003. Outline biography of Nietzsche.
2. Selected Papers. John S. Moore. 1993-2001. Several papers on Nietzsche's relevance to contemporary thought.
3. Friedrich Nietzsche. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Oct. 2003. Straightforward introduction to Nietzsche's life, work and influence.
4. The Prophet and the Dandy: Philosophy as a Way of Life in Nietzsche and Foucault. James Miller. Winter 1998. Focusing more on Foucault.
5. One hundred years since the death of Friedrich Nietzsche: a review of his ideas and influence. Oct. 2000. Entry in A world socialism perspective.
6. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Guillermo J. Grenier. Jan. 2002. A very readable account of Nietzsche's life and work.
7. Nietzsche. Voice of the Shuttle listings for Nietzsche.