Although Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy is brilliant, insightful and relevant, he has been one of the most misquoted, controversial and systematically misunderstood philosophers of the nineteenth century. His philosophy has been misrepresented and erroneously thought to have supported Nazism.
At the age of nineteen Nietzsche went to the University of Bonn to study theology and classical philology with the aim of becoming a pastor. This intention did not last, and in rebellion, he decided to switch to Leipzig University, drop theology, and pursue other interests.
One of those unintentional and inadvertent interests was visiting a brothel whereupon he contracted a venereal disease, probably syphilis. This began as one of two life-altering events for him, the other one being his discovery of a copy of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation in a secondhand bookstore. Of his find he wrote:
"I found myself looking into a mirror which reflected the world, life and my own nature with terrifying grandeur.....Here I saw sickness and health, exile and refuge, Hell and Heaven."
At a time when Nietzsche found himself with nothing to believe in, he identified with Shopenhauer's pessimism and detachment. He was also fascinated by Schopenhauer's concept of will and the significant role it played in our view of the world. This laid the groundwork for his work Will to Power.
After a brief stint in the military, cut short by injury, Nietzsche was offered the post of professor of philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland. He was only twenty-four years old, but his mastery of classical literature had opened the door for him, even though he not yet taken his doctorate. After a short ten years he was forced to retire from the post due to continuing poor health. He then traveled across Europe, devoting himself to writing and his recuperation.
Nietzsche's writings are varied and cover diverse topics from ethics and religion to metaphysics and epistemology. He challenged the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality and believed in the realities of the world we live in, rather than in any world beyond. He saw the individual's need to dominate and control the external forces operating upon him, as his fundamental driving force. For Nietzsche, the individual needed to possess the power to be the master of his own fate (existentialism). He rejected in Christianity, what he saw as a 'slave morality'.
Nietzsche's concept of the Ubermensch, or Superman, dominated much of his work. His conception of such a person (male or female) was not one of superiority in breeding or endowment, but as one who is able to confront all the possible difficulties and terrors of life and still embrace it. In the same regard, he advocated rigorous self-discipline and voluntary exposure to suffering in order to exercise the 'will to power.' This 'will to power' could serve to overcome the passive mediocrity he saw characterized in most people's lives.
For Nietzsche, the 'will to power' is the essence of human
existence and the source of all of our strivings. It is also not only a
defense against the pain and bitterness of life for the purposes of
preserving oneself, but a means of mastering all adversity and claiming
a higher level of existence for oneself. In Nietzsche's universe 'God
is dead' and there is no level of accomplishment that we, as humans,
cannot set out to achieve. Nietzsche, likewise advises us to follow our
highest ideals and act on them each and every moment, since what we do
now, will recur throughout all eternity.
Contrary to popular misunderstanding, Nietzsche did not endorse a master morality, instead he advocated that the strong had a duty towards helping the less fortunate:
Nietzsche's philosophy was one of freedom and life-affirmation. While some of his writings are mistakenly regarded as lessons in nihilism (the view that values have no justification or meaning), what Nietzsche actually put forth was that we are in a spiritual crisis. He felt that a new sustainable approach was needed for how we find truth and value; otherwise we would indeed plummet into the horrors of nihilism, or worse. Nietzsche called for a return to the moral concepts held by the Ancient Greeks. Morality for him, and some of the Greeks, is dependent upon human nature and the expression of what is excellent in us. His concept of Ubermensch or Superman resembles that of Aristotle's man of virtue.
As one of the first existentialist philosophers, Nietzsche took philosophy in a totally different direction, yet his profound influence extended far beyond the field of philosophy. The list of figures upon whom he had an immense effect includes Yeats, Strindberg, O'Neill, Shaw, Rilke, Freud, as well as many others. Nietzsche's philosophy was one of style, clarity and exhilaration.