The challenge begins with how to pronounce his name.
The first bit should sound like ‘Knee’, the second like ‘cha’
Knee – cha.
Then we need to get past some of his extraordinary and provocative statements:
‘What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’
‘God is dead! And we have killed him.'
And his large moustache.
But when we do, we’ll discover a thinker who is intermittently enchanting, wise and
Friedrich Nietzsche was born in 1844 in a quiet village in the eastern part of Germany
where his father was the priest.
He did exceptionally well at school and university and so excelled at
ancient Greek that he was made a professor
at the University of Basel
when still only in his mid-twenties.
But his official career didn’t work out. He got fed up with his fellow academics, gave
up his job and moved to Sils Maria in the Swiss alps
where he lived quietly, working on his masterpieces,
The Birth of Tragedy, Human, All Too Human,
The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra,
Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals,
He had lots of problems: - he didn’t get on with his family:
'I don’t like my mother and it’s painful even for me to hear my sister’s voice.’
- women kept rejecting him. - his books didn’t sell
- And when he was only forty-four, he had a mental breakdown, precipitated when he saw
a horse in a Turin street being beaten by its driver
and ran over to embrace him shouting 'I understand you'. He never recovered and
died eleven sad years later.
But his philosophy was full of heroism and grandeur.
He was a prophet of what he called: SELBSTÜBERWINDUNG
or SELF-OVERCOMING, the process by which a great-souled
person - what he called an ÜBERMENSCH
rises above their circumstances and difficulties to embrace
whatever life throws at them.
He wanted his work to teach us, as he put it, ‘how to become who we really are’.
His thought centers around 4 main recommendations:
Own up to envy
Envy is – Nietzsche recognised – a big part of life. Yet the lingering effects of
Christianity generally teaches to be feel ashamed
of our envious feelings. They seem an
indication of evil. So we hide them from ourselves and others
Yet there is nothing wrong with envy, maintained Nietzsche, so long as we use it as a guide
to what we really want. Every person who makes us envious should be seen as an indication
of what we could one day become. The envy-inducing writer, tycoon
or chef is hinting at who you are capable of one day being.
It's not that Nietzsche believed we always end up getting what we want. His own life
had taught him this well enough). He simply insisted that we must face up to our true
desires, put up a heroic fight to honour them, and only then mourn failure with solemn dignity.
That is what it means to be an ÜBERMENSCH
2. Don’t be a Christian
Nietzsche had some extreme things to say about Christianity
‘In the entire New Testament, there
is only person worth respecting: Pilate, the Roman governor.’
It was knockabout stuff, but his true target was more subtle and more interesting: he resented
Christianity for protecting people from their envy.
Christianity had in Nietzsche’s account emerged in the late Roman Empire
in the minds of timid slaves, who had lacked the stomach
to get hold of what they really wanted
and so had clung to a philosophy that made a virtue of their cowardice.
He called this SKLAVENMORAL
Christians - whom he rather rudely termed DIE HEERDE, the herd - had wished to
enjoy the real ingredients of fulfilment (a position in the world, sex,
intellectual mastery, creativity)
but had been too inept to get them.
They had therefore fashioned a hypocritical creed denouncing what
they wanted but were too weak to fight for
– while praising what they did not want but happened
to have. So, in the Christian value system, sexlessness
turned into purity [show text changing] weakness became goodness, submission-to-people-one-hates
became obedience and, in Nietzsche’s phrase, “not-being-able-to-take-revenge” turned
Christianity amounted to a giant machine for bitter denial.
3. Never drink alcohol
Nietzsche himself drank only water – and as a special treat, milk. And he thought we
should do likewise. He wasn’t making a small,
eccentric dietary point. The idea went to the heart of his philosophy, as contained
in his declaration: ‘There have been two great narcotics in European civilisation:
Christianity and alcohol.’
He hated alcohol for the very same reasons that he scorned Christianity: because both
numb pain, and both reassure us that things are just fine as they are, sapping us of the
will to change our lives for the better. A few drinks usher in a transient feeling of
satisfaction that can get fatally in the way of taking the steps necessary to improve our
Nietzsche was obsessed with the awkward truth that getting really valuable things done hurts.
“How little you know of human happiness - you comfortable people” he wrote
“The secret of a fulfilled life is: live
dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius!”
4. “God is Dead”
Nietzsche’s dramatic assertion that God is dead is not, as it’s often taken to be,
some kind of a celebratory statement.
Despite his reservations about Christianity, Nietzsche did not think that the end of belief
was anything to cheer about.
Religious beliefs were false, he knew; but he observed that they were very beneficial
in the sense of helping us cope with the problems of life.
Nietzsche felt that the gap left by religion should ideally be filled by Culture (he meant:
philosophy, art, music, literature): Culture should replace Scripture.
However, Nietzsche was deeply suspicious of the way his own era was handling culture.
He believed the universities were killing the humanities,
turning them into dry academic exercises,
rather than using them for what they were always meant to be:
guides to life. He admired
the way the Greeks had used tragic drama in a practical, therapeutic way,
as an occasion for catharsis and moral education – and wished his own age to be comparably
He called for a reformation, in which people – newly conscious of the crisis brought
on by the end of faith – would fill the gaps created by the disappearance of religion
with philosophy and art.
Every era faces particular psychological challenges, thought Nietzsche, and it is the task of the
philosopher to identify, and help solve, these.
For Nietzsche, the 19th century was reeling under the impact
of two developments: Mass Democracy
and Atheism. The first
threatened to unleash torrents of undigested envy; the second to
leave humans without guidance or morality.
In relation to both challenges, Nietzsche remains our endearing, fascinating often loveable
and moustachioed guide.