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INTRODUCTION TO NIHILISM 1

NIETZSCHE AND THE DEATH OF GOD 7

NIETZSCHE AND THE TRUE WORLD 11

SUFFERING AND THE MEANING OF LIFE 16

ACTIVE AND PASSIVE NIHILISM 20

OVERCOMING NIHILISM 24

NIETZSCHE AND METAPHYSICS 29

NIETZSCHE AND SELF OVERCOMING 29

NIETZSCHE AND THE WILL TO POWER 33

INTRODUCTION TO NIETZSCHE 34

PESSIMISM OF STRENGTH 40

NIETZSCHE AND ZAPFFE: BEAUTY, SUFFERING, AND THE NATURE OF GENIUS 44

NIETZSCHE AND MORALITY: THE HIGHER MAN AND THE HERD 49

NIETZSCHE AND PSYCHOLOGY: HOW TO BECOME WHO YOU ARE 54

NIETZSCHE AND DIONYSUS: TRAGEDY AND THE AFFIRMATION OF LIFE 59

NIETZSCHE AND TRUTH: SKEPTICISM AND THE FREE SPIRIT 65

NIETZSCHE AND THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA: BECOMING GODS 69

NIETZSCHE AND THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA: THE LAST MAN AND THE SUPERMAN
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INTRODUCTION TO NIHILISM

In 1887 Friedrich Nietzsche wrote what was to become one of his most famous passages:

“What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is
lacking; “why?” finds no answer.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Nietzsche’s views on nihilism are some of the most discussed by both those who study
Nietzsche and those who study nihilism. In this series of lectures we will examine nihilism and
the role it played in Nietzsche’s thought.

In this introductory lecture we will look at what nihilism means, its history, and its significance in
Western Civilization. While in the subsequent lectures we will examine Nietzsche’s views
regarding nihilism and his thoughts about how to overcome it.

While the philosophical seeds of nihilism seem to stretch back thousands of years, the term
nihilism only began to see widespread use in the West in the mid-19th century.

A novel published in 1862, by the Russian author Ivan Turgenev, titled Fathers and Sons is
often pointed to as the work that spurred a growth in the popularity of the term. In the novel one
of the main characters is asked what it means to be a nihilist, and he says:

a “nihilist is a man who does not bow down before any authority, who does not take any
principle on faith, whatever reverence that principle may be enshrined in.” (Fathers and
Sons, Ivan Turgenev)

Today the sense in which the term is used in Fathers and Sons would be considered a form of
political nihilism – the rejection of the political norms and institutions of one’s day.

Since the time this novel was published, many writers and philosophers have espoused nihilistic
views in a number of different areas, and hence there has also been a growth in the term’s
ambiguity, so it will be helpful to clear up its meaning. We can in fact distinguish between four
main types of nihilism all of which share a similar characteristic, that being a general attitude of
denial or negation of meaning.

Nietzsche alludes to this in the outline for his book The Will to Power where he writes:

“nihilism (. . .the radical repudiation of value, meaning, and desirability).” (The


Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

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The four types of nihilism are nicely summed up by Donald Crosby in his thought-provoking
work on nihilism, The Specter of the Absurd.

“Moral nihilism denies the sense of moral obligation, the objectivity of moral principles, or
the moral viewpoint. Epistemological nihilism denies that there can be anything like
truths or meanings not strictly confined within, or wholly relative to, a single individual,
group, or conceptual scheme. Cosmic nihilism disavows intelligibility or value in nature,
seeing it as indifferent or hostile to fundamental human concerns. Existential nihilism
negates the meaning of life.” (The Specter of the Absurd, Donald Crosby)

Based on this passage one can see that the first three types of nihilism; moral, epistemological,
and cosmic, each negate meaning from an important area of life where human beings have
traditionally searched for it. For most of history people have assumed that an objective basis for
meaning is required – an assumption the validity of which we will examine in a later lecture –
and as we will see in this lecture this has led to the positing of alternate worlds where such
objective meaning can be found.

But when one comes to deny an absolute or objective basis for value, truth, or meaning it
becomes very difficult not to slip into nihilism. For example in the case moral nihilism in rejecting
the objectivity of moral principles one is claiming that it would not be correct to speak of such
principles as being true or false, rather they are dependent on subjective opinions and thus
meaningless.

When one accepts these first three types of nihilism one is likely to reach the more general type
of nihilism – existential nihilism. Existential nihilism can in a way be seen as encompassing the
three other types because when one denies meaning in life they are also explicitly or implicitly
denying meaning in the areas covered by the other three types. If one denies that moral
principles and truths actually exist intrinsic to the universe, and if one believes that the universe
is utterly indifferent or even hostile to human hopes and concerns, then one will most likely
become an existential nihilist and claim that life is depressingly meaningless and absurd.

Existential nihilism is not only is it the type that is usually being referred to when the term
nihilism is used on its own, but it is also the type of nihilism Nietzsche was most interested in.

Given the importance of existential nihilism to Nietzsche’s philosophy, and the fact that despair
over the meaninglessness or pointlessness of life is a problem many individuals in the modern
era have to confront, we will focus on existential nihilism for the remainder of this introductory
lecture and the future lectures on ‘Nietzsche and Nihilism’.

When discussing nihilism a question that usually comes up is what exactly does it mean to
negate meaning? In order to clear this up it is important to understand what the word “meaning”
actually means.

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The philosopher David Roochnick in his book Retrieving the Ancients: An Introduction to Greek
Philosophy points out that the word can be defined in two different senses: “to signify” as in “a
pig means a four-legged mammal usually found on farms”, or secondly meaning can be defined
as “to intend or have a purpose”, such as “I meant to do it”.

Based on these definitions he suggests that to say that human life has meaning is to believe
that “life has a purpose which can be signified or explained”.

It is important to note that in order for life to have meaning it is not enough for it just to have a
purpose, if that purpose is one which no one is aware of. Rather for life to have meaning it must
have a purpose which people are able to signify or identify with.

Why do human beings need there to be a meaning of life? There has been much speculation as
to the source of the seemingly universal need for meaning among humans, but as with many
questions of philosophy there is no clear consensus. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer,
who greatly influenced Nietzsche, suggested that it is the inevitability of suffering combined with
the awareness of the inescapability of death that creates in human beings the desire for there to
be a meaning to life.

But that issue aside, a further question which needs to be dealt with is: ‘where have human
beings typically found this desired meaning?’ Strange as it may initially sound, the meaning of
life has for a huge number of people traditionally been thought to be located another reality. This
alternate reality, which is commonly called the ‘true world’ has often been seen as the source of
truth and value and believed to be a destination, with the purpose of life being to attain entry or
access to this alternate world either upon one’s death or in some cases during life. In our first
lecture on Nietzsche and the will to power we designated such theories as two-world theories.

Two world theories have dominated thought for thousands of years, and in doing so provided
meaning for countless individuals. Common two-world theories are Plato’s world of forms,
Descartes spirit world, Kant’s noumena, and the heaven of Christianity.

The Christian heaven, in particular, has been the most prominent two world theory in the west
for nearly 2000 years. Christian teachings gave individuals the conviction that their lives, no
matter how difficult, were for something; that is, there was a purpose to their earthly existence
and this purpose was to live according to the will of God so as to attain entry into the kingdom of
heaven upon one’s death. This ‘story’ is a powerful ‘antidote’ against nihilism, as it provides
individuals with a much desired purpose and meaning to life, ensuring the believer that no
matter how much suffering they may endure in this life they will be guaranteed entry into a
blissful reality upon their death.

It is important to understand that the roots of nihilism, stretch back well beyond the beginning of
the modern period. Nietzsche in fact suggested that a feeling of pessimism was the beginning of

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nihilism, and pessimism towards the meaning of life can clearly be seen in the writings of many
ancients including the Greek poet Theognis, who lived in the sixth century BC:

“The best for man were not to have been born and not to have seen the light of the sun;
but, if once born (the second best for him is) to pass through the gates of death as
speedily as may be.”

However, as Nietzsche explained, pessimism is only a ‘preliminary form of nihilism’. No matter


how much suffering, pain, and hardship one is forced to endure in life, nihilism will not arise as
long as one has the conviction that there is a meaning or purpose to life. The popularity of
Christianity lay in the fact that it could provide people from all walks of life – even the crippled,
incurably sick and dirt poor – the conviction that despite all the suffering and evil they had to
endure in their lifetime, their life ultimately had a purpose.

As Ernest Becker put it:

“the most remarkable achievement of the Christian world picture: that it could take
slaves, cripples, imbeciles, the simple and the mighty, and make them all secure heroes,
simply by taking a step back from the world into another dimension of things, the
dimension called heaven.” (The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker)

In his book the Death of God and the Meaning of Life, Julian Young explains that:

“For most of our Western history we have not talked about the meaning of life. This is
because we used to be quite certain we knew what it was.” (The Death of God and the
Meaning of Life, Julian Young)

And as was mentioned earlier, it was Christianity which provided western civilization with that
answer to the question, ‘what is the meaning of life?’ But as is well known, the role Christianity
played in the Western world began to falter in the 16th and 17th centuries. And it was the
ascendency of science which was primarily responsible for this decline in adherence to
Christian dogma. Nietzsche used the phrase ‘god is dead’ to symbolize the loss of faith in the
two-world theory of Christianity, and understood that with this loss of faith a crisis regarding the
meaning of life was inevitable.

If one looks back to the beginning of the scientific revolution, it is obvious that science and
nihilism go hand in hand. This idea is captured by a quote from the modern nobel prize winning
physicist, Steven Weinberg, who stated that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the
more it seems pointless.”

Nietzsche, in his book The Gay Science, reiterates the idea that science and the
meaninglessness of life go hand in hand:

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“A “scientific” interpretation of the world, as you understand, might therefore still be one
of the most stupid of all possible interpretations of the world, meaning that it would be
one of the poorest in meaning. This thought is intended for the ears and consciences of
our mechanist who nowadays like to pass as philosophers and insist that mechanics is
the doctrine of the first and last laws on which all existence must be based as on the
ground floor. But an essentially mechanical world would be an essentially meaningless
world. Assuming that one estimated the value of a piece of music according to how
much of it could be counted, calculated, and expressed in formulas: how absurd would
such a “scientific” estimation of music be! What would one have comprehended,
understood, grasped of it? Nothing, really nothing of what is “music” in it!” (The Gay
Science, Friedrich Nietzsche)

A theory espoused by the philosopher Giordano Bruno in the late 16th century has been pointed
to as one of the early scientific seeds of nihilism and it is good of example of the way in which
scientific theories degraded the meaning that people found in religious worldviews.

In combining the views of Copernicus with his heliocentric universe, Nicholas of Cusa and his
idea of the infinite nature of the universe, and the views of the pre-Socratic philosophers
Leucippus and Democritus concerning atoms,Bruno put forth a theory where the sun was only
one of an infinite number of stars scattered throughout an infinite universe. Bruno also
suggested that there could be other planets accompanying some of these stars where like on
earth, life might exist. This clearly did not fit in with the Christian view of the day which had
maintained a superior place in the cosmos for humans, but rather seriously degraded man’s
place in the universe.

While science provided answers to many practical questions and improved life in many
unforeseen ways, unlike religion, science did not provide answers to questions concerning the
purpose and meaning of life, rather it instigated a skeptical attitude which merely cast doubt on
the views of Christianity and other religions.

Nietzsche, writing in the late 19th century, seems to have anticipated the growing wave of
nihilism which would grip the Western world especially following World War I, when it played a
significant role in the thought of such philosophers as Bertrand Russell, John Paul Sartre, Albert
Camus, and Franz Kafka. He understood that Christianity had thus far provided individuals with
the conviction that life had meaning, and therefore with ‘the death of god’ a gnawing feeling that
life is meaningless would inflict ever more people. Modern civilization, Nietzsche thought, would
be defined by how this feeling was dealt with and eventually overcome. In the opening of
Nietzsche’s work titled The Will to Power he says:

“What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what
can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism. . . For some time now, our whole
European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that
is a growing from decade to decade: relentlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that

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wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.” (The Will to
Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Nietzsche had his own unique views on nihilism, which is why he is one of the most read and
quoted on the subject. And in the next few lectures we will examine in more detail these
fascinating views of his. In the next lecture we will look at suffering and the role it played in
Nietzsche’s nihilism.

NIETZSCHE AND THE DEATH OF GOD

In his book Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche announces:

“What is called idol on the title page is simply what has been called truth so far. Twilight
of the Idols – that is: the old truth is approaching its end.” (Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich
Nietzsche)

In the last lecture, we investigated true world theories, which were examples of some of the old
‘truths’ Nietzsche thought were on the decline.

In this lecture we will investigate why Nietzsche thought these ‘old truths’ were approaching
their end. To do this we’ll analyze what is perhaps Nietzsche’s most famous and controversial
statement: “god is dead”. We’ll look at what such a statement meant to Nietzsche, what led him
to make such a bold pronouncement, and what he thought would happen if this belief were to
become as widespread as he anticipated.

So what did Nietzsche mean by his statement ‘god is dead’? On the surface it may appear that
he was referring to the observation that belief in the monotheistic god of Christianity was on the
decline. However, such a view is not generally accepted by modern day scholars, rather many
suggest instead that with this statement Nietzsche wante to symbolize his conviction that faith in
true world theories in general were deteriorating.

Many scholars and philosophers who have been influenced by Nietzsche have claimed that in
communicating the death of god to the masses, Nietzsche should be characterized as a modern
day prophet. What is it about his message that qualifies him for such an honorable title?

Nietzsche was only one of a number thinkers in his time to recognize the growing skepticism
towards Christianity, as well as other less prominent true world theories. So surely this alone
does not qualify him for the title of ‘prophet’.

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Rather, the uniqueness of Nietzsche’s message lay in his remarkable ability to foresee the
potentially devastating consequences which would befall those individuals unable to retain their
faith in true world theories.

Nietzsche thought that when true world theories lost their influence, individuals would be torn
from the very worldviews which gave their lives meaning, and the strength to persevere in life
despite sometimes miserable conditions. In short, Nietzsche understood that the death of god
could potentially vault a large majority of the human race into a state of nihilism.

The great Walter Kaufmann, in his classic work on Nietzsche, described exactly why Nietzsche
is often heralded as a modern day prophet:

“Sometimes prophecies seem to consist in man’s ability to experience his own wretched
fate so deeply that it becomes a symbol of something larger. It is in this sense that one
can compare Nietzsche with the ancient prophets. He felt the agony, the suffering, and
the misery of a godless world so intensely, at a time when others were yet blind to its
tremendous consequence, that he was able to experience in advance, as it were, the
fate of a coming generation.” (Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Walter Kaufmann)

The generation following Nietzsche in many ways seemed to have experienced the fate he had
prophesied. As the historian Ronald Stromberg, in his book Redemption by War, explained, the
turn of the 20th century marked a time when intellectuals in Europe were gripped by a growing
sense that life was meaningless – and it was this feeling which can help to explain the now
forgotten fact that the vast majority of European intellectuals were in fact pro-war in the years
leading up to World War I.

Stromberg wrote:

“How, in the end, are we to explain this so fateful explosion of warlike ideas and
sentiments among all manner of European intellectuals in 1914? Of the ingredients we
have found to be pervasive, all are important: hatred of the existing society; the
apocalyptic “sense of an ending”; need for some kind of worthy cause to give meaning to
one’s life; sheer thirst for adventure against the background of a dreary materialism…”
(Redemption by War, Ronald Stromberg)

Fortunately the modern age is much different than the spirit of the early 20th century, as today
most individuals are not fervent war supporters. Instead, modern individuals seem to search for
a cause which will give meaning to their life in different ways. However, this search for many
appears to be a lost cause, as despite the high standard of living we enjoy in the West, the
question ‘what is it all for?’ still grips most of us in our moments of solitude.

As the psychologist Victor Frankl pointed out:

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“For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the
dream that if we just improve the socioeconomic situation of people, everything will be
okay, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has
subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have
the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” (Viktor Frankl)

Nietzsche announces the death of god in a famous aphorism in his book The Gay Science,
called The Madman. In this passage he tells a tale of a madman who runs out onto the street
screeching “I seek God! I seek God!” Understandably, those on the street give him a strange
look and continue on with their evening, however, the madman does not cease.

He yells:

“God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console
ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers…There was never a greater event,- and
on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history
before this!” (The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Despite the madman’s attempt to enlighten his fellow citizens regarding the enormity of the
death of god, the individuals on the street pay little attention to him. When he noticed the utter
indifference of those around him, “he threw his lantern on the ground so that it broke in pieces
and was extinguished”.

“I come too early, I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way,
and is travelling, – it has not reached men’s ears.”

Later in his life, Nietzsche reached the opinion that the loss of faith in true world theories was in
fact the most glorious event to befall mankind. In his book, The Gay Science, he wrote:

“In fact, we philosophers and “free spirits” feel as if we are illumined by a new dawn, on
receiving the news that “the old God is dead”; our hearts overflow with gratitude, wonder,
premonition, anticipation. At last the horizon seems to us open again…the sea, our sea
again lies open before us; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea.” (The
Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche)

A universe without god, or without a transcendent purpose driving the lives of men toward a
common end, was in fact a universe, according to Nietzsche, where strong and creative
individuals could freely sculpt their own worldviews.

However, this attitude of Nietzsche’s did not come naturally, but was an attitude that he came to
adopt only after years of struggle, pain, and suffering. Early in his life, Nietzsche experienced
first-hand the misery of living in what he believed to be a godless world; it was a world with no

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transcendent purpose and thus no meaning, in which mankind had no special place in the
scheme of things. In other words, this worldview led him to experience the agony of nihilism.

In one of his earlier works, Human, all too Human, Nietzsche expressed this agony, he wrote:

“But the tragic thing is that we can no longer believe those dogmas of religion and
metaphysics, once we have the rigorous method of truth in our hearts and heads, and
yet on the other hand, the development of mankind has made us so delicate, sensitive,
and ailing that we need the most potent kind of cures and comforts—hence arises the
danger that man might bleed to death from the truth he has recognized. Byron
expressed this in his immortal lines: Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most must
mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth, the tree of knowledge is not that of life.” (Human,
all too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche)

The question we will now examine is why he held the conviction that god was dead. In our
modern times, it is usually taken for granted that the general decline of faith in religions and true
world theories is a result of the growth of the natural sciences.

However, Nietzsche took a different stance. In his book The Dawn, he illuminated his position:

“In former times, one sought to prove that there is no God – today one indicates how the
belief that there is a God could arise and how this belief acquired its weight and
importance: a counter-proof that there is no God thereby becomes superfluous. When in
former times one had refuted the “proofs of the existence of God” put forward, there
always remained the doubt whether better proofs might not be adduced than those just
refuted: in those days, atheists did not know how to make a clean sweep. ” (The Dawn,
Friedrich Nietzsche)

Nietzsche didn’t think it was possible to refute the existence of true worlds by putting forth an
argument which utilized the latest findings ascertained by science, as he understood that true
world believers would counter with arguments of their own.

Instead, Nietzsche thought he had refuted the existence of true worlds with his keen and
penetrating psychological insights. He looked into the mind of the believer and understood why
it was that they held such beliefs. Faith in true world theories, Nietzsche espoused, fulfilled deep
seated psychological needs – such theories were created by individuals in need of solaces to
protect them from the harsh realities of this life.

Before we conclude we will examine an apparent contradiction in Nietzsche’s thought with


regards to his views on the death of god. In a very important, and often neglected passage from
his book Human, all too Human, Nietzsche admits that for all we know a true world, or what here
he calls a metaphysical world, could indeed exist. He wrote:

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“It is true, there could be a metaphysical world; the absolute possibility of it is hardly to
be disputed.” (Human, all too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Of all the misunderstandings Nietzsche has been the victim of in the last century, and there
have been many, one of the most erroneous of them all would be to call him a dogmatist.
Nietzsche, as the above quote signifies, admitted that a true world, or gods for that matter, could
exist for all he knew. As human beings we are fallible animals, and our knowledge of this vast
universe is extremely limited. In terms of the existence of true worlds we really have no way of
knowing one way or the other.

This may appear, at first glance, to be a contradiction in Nietzsche’s thoughts. How could he
proclaim the death of god while also stating that a true world could exist for all we know?

This possible contradiction is cleared up with the realization that Nietzsche thought that his
psychological insights into the mind of the believer had discredited the validity of true world
theories, but he did not think it had disproved the existence of a true world, whatever that may
be, altogether. In the back of his mind Nietzsche was always aware that he, like all other
humans, did not have special access to ultimate truths, whatever such truths would entail. So
although he claimed ‘god is dead’, he admitted that in fact a true world in some form or another
could indeed exist.

However, Nietzsche himself was steadfast in his conviction to live the rest of his life without
believing in any form of a true world. The reason for such a conviction being utilitarian, that is,
he thought that his life, and in fact the lives of all human beings, would be more successful
without such a belief.

By believing a better life is awaiting one following death, the individual escapes from the
responsibility and burden of having to make the most of this life. Thus in discarding faith in true
world theories, an individual is left alone in this world with the choice of either making the most
of it or spending their days in a state of guilt and self-pity over what could have been.

Therefore, for more than any other reason, Nietzsche proclaimed the death of god because he
felt that a world composed of individuals who did not believe in true world theories would be a
much better world.

In his autobiography, Ecce Homo, written shortly before Nietzsche descended into madness, he
conveyed this idea. He wrote:

“The concept ‘beyond’, ‘true world’ invented in order to devalue the only world there
is—in order to retain no goal, no reason, no task for our earthly reality!” (Ecce Homo,
Friedrich Nietzsche)

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In the next lecture we are going to investigate the phenomenon of nihilism from Nietzsche’s
perspective, looking at, among other things, the difference between active and passive nihilism,
and why Nietzsche thought nihilism was a ‘transitional stage’. We will then have put ourselves in
a good position for the final lecture, where we will look at different ideas Nietzsche thought
would help an individual overcome nihilism.

NIETZSCHE AND THE TRUE WORLD

In the last lecture we investigated the connection between suffering and nihilism. We saw that
when one comes to realize that suffering is an inescapable part of this life, and that the ideal of
lasting happiness is an impossibility, one often begins to wonder what the point of it all is and
sets out on a path that could very well lead to nihilism. As a quick reminder, nihilism, as we are
using the term, is the conviction that life is meaningless, or that it lacks a purpose.

However, we also noted that even for those who set out on such a pessimistic path, nihilism is
not the inevitable end result. Most people, at one time or another, entertain pessimistic
thoughts about life and wonder about the purpose of it all, or even if there is one, however, the
human race is not populated with an overwhelming majority of nihilists. Why is this?

As Nietzsche explained in a passage from The Will to Power, ‘an escape remains’. This path of
escape from nihilism is one which has been used by vast numbers of people throughout history,
and involves finding the desired meaning of life by believing in the existence of what is called a
true world.

In this lecture we will investigate the nature of true world theories. In particular, we will examine
the structure of them, look at the existential fears they help to suppress, and examine the main
types of true world theories which have been popular throughout history.

Julian Young provides a perceptive definition of the main characteristics of true world theories,
and explains why these theories are so effective in convincing individuals that life has a
purpose:

“A true world is a destination; a destination such that to reach it is to enter…a state of


‘eternal bliss’, a heaven, paradise, or utopia. Hence true world philosophies…give
meaning to life by representing it as a journey; a journey towards ‘redemption, towards
an arrival that will more than make up for the stress and discomfort of the travelling.”
(The Death of God and the Meaning of Life, Julian Young)

Nietzsche was very interested in true world theories. He understood that a lot of the great
philosophical and religious systems throughout history were true world theories, and was
interested in how so many otherwise intelligent and rational individuals could believe in such

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theories, which he viewed as absurd fantasies. When he began to look at the varying types of
true world theories, he noticed a commonality between all of them. Every true world theory
shared the same basic structure. Nietzsche called this structure the ‘ascetic ideal’.

The ascetic ideal structures existence into two realms, or domains, which correspond to two
different realities. There is a domain of higher value, the true world, and a domain of lower
value, this earthly existence. True world theories claim that the true world is more valuable
because it is the home of lasting bliss, happiness, and truth, while this earthly existence is of
little to no worth because it is filled with suffering and ends in death.

All true world theories, being structured by this ascetic ideal, claim that the meaning or purpose
of life is to overcome this earthly existence and obtain entry into the true world.

Nietzsche saw true world theories as the sole source of meaning for mankind so far in history, a
thought that is expressed in a passage from On the Genealogy of Morals where he writes:

“Apart from the ascetic ideal, man, the human animal, had no meaning so far. His
existence on earth contained no goal; “why man at all? – was a question without an
answer…” (On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Individuals who ascribe to true world theories look down upon this life as in many ways a
nuisance or even a horror which must be overcome and left behind. Nietzsche articulated this
idea by stating that such an individual adopts the stance of “judge of the world who in the end
places existence itself upon his scales and finds it wanting.”

Not only do true world believers claim that a more valuable true world exists apart from this
earthly reality, but furthermore, they feel that their ‘true’ or ‘real’ self belongs in the true world,
and not in this deceptive and inferior shadow reality of everyday existence, as some see it.

Such theories satiate two fundamental human needs. In the first two lectures we discussed the
first of these needs which true world theories satiate: that being, the need to believe life has a
meaning.

The second need which true world theories fulfill is the all too human need for self esteem.
Individuals crave a sense of self importance, and while most people search for this through
social interactions, believing in a true world is another way in which individuals can feel that their
self is of universal importance.

Speaking of the Christian true world theory in particular, Nietzsche understood that part of its
popularity lay in the fact that:

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“It granted man an absolute value, as opposed to his smallness and accidental
occurrence in the flux of becoming and passing away.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich
Nietzsche)

Human beings have for millennia felt themselves to be at the center of the universe, thus
granting them with the sense of self-importance which every human craves.

Recognizing the intimate connection between the human need to feel important and nihilism,
Nietzsche understood that when an individual no longer feels like they are “the collaborator, let
alone the center, of becoming”, then nihilism becomes a very real possibility.

It will be beneficial to investigate the various types of true world theories in order to understand
just how ubiquitous they have been throughout the history of civilization. We can identify three
main types, or categories, of true world theories, which, as we mentioned earlier, all share the
same general structure which Nietzsche called the ‘ascetic ideal’. The ascetic idea, as we saw,
structures existence into 2 domains, the true world and this earthly existence.

Although Nietzsche didn’t characterize them as such, for the sake of clarity we will label the
three types of true worlds as: temporal true worlds, monistic true worlds , and eternal true
worlds.

Temporal true world theories do not claim that a separate world or reality exists apart from this
reality. Instead, they assert that this reality of becoming or change is the only reality. However,
temporal true world theories propose that this reality of becoming is being guided somewhere,
and that at some point in the future this earthly existence will be radically transformed into a
utopian ideal. The true world, in temporal true world theories, does not lie in some metaphysical
realm, but instead exists in the future.

Temporal true world theories are closely related to philosophies of history, and because of this it
will be beneficial to take a slight detour to understand exactly what a philosophy of history is.

A philosophy of history can refer either to theories which attempt to discern an underlying
general pattern in history, or to the study of how historians can arrive at knowledge of past
events. Here we are concerned with philosophy of history in the first sense.

A passage from the great philosopher and economist Ludwig Von Mises reveals the relationship
between philosophies of history and temporal true world theories:

“Philosophy of history looks upon mankind’s history from a different point of view. It
assumes that God or nature or some other superhuman entity providentially directs the
course of events toward a definite goal….” (Theory and History, Ludwig von Mises)

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A famous example of a philosophy of history is the one espoused by Karl Marx. Marx proposed
that history was inevitably moving towards a period he called the ‘end of history’, driven by an
impersonal force he called, but never clearly defined, “the material productive forces of society”.
At this so called end of history all the trouble, suffering, wars, and pains that we are afflicted
with, will cease and humans will live in a communist utopian reality of bliss.

The defining feature of monistic true worlds is the idea that, just as an individual wave is
identical with the ocean it emerges from, an individual’s true self is identical with the universal
spirit which it is an expression of. This idea is central to the teachings of Indian philosophy, and
in particular Hinduism.

According to Indian thought, the world which most people think they live in, and the self which
they identify themselves as being, is an illusion. In reality, everything is a manifestation of the
one supreme and universal spirit, called Brahman, which not only gives rise to the universe and
everything in it, but also transcends the universe.

Furthermore, while we take ourselves to be individuals set apart, or distinct from, the rest of the
world, in reality we are an expression of the Brahman just like everything else. Hinduism calls
our true self ‘atman’, and in fact declares that this true self is identical with the universal spirit,
brahman.

The goal of life, according to Indian philosophy, is to transcend or shed the veil of illusion which
blinds us to the real nature of things, and realize that everything is literally one with everything
else because everything is Brahman. This idea is expressed in a famous formula contained in
the Upinashads, the most important Indian philosophical text. The formula states:

“Men call it by many names, but the sages know it is one.”

Monistic true worlds confer meaning on life by giving individuals the conviction that their real self
is something which transcends their apparent individuality. As Nietzsche wrote in a passage
contained in The Will to Power:

“Some sort of unity, some form of “monism”: this faith suffices to give man a deep feeling
of standing in the context of, and being dependent on, some whole that is infinitely
superior to him, and he sees himself as a mode of this deity.” (The Will to Power,
Friedrich Nietzsche)

Eternal true worlds theories have been the most dominant true world theories in the history of
western civilization. In our first lecture on Nietzsche and The Will to Power, we referred to such
theories as two-world theories. Such theories claim that alongside this earthly reality exists
another, more valuable and eternal reality. An eternal true world is held to be the antithesis to
this reality in that it is thought to be one of permanence and perfection, as opposed to this
earthly reality which is a reality of change and pervaded with deficiencies.

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Those who believe in eternal true worlds believe that access to them is possible after death, and
because of this such theories have usually posited that individuals have a soul which can
maintain an independent existence from the body. Upon one’s death, and given the right
conditions, this soul will drift away from the earthly reality and enter the eternal true world.

The most well known eternal true world theory is that of Christianity. Christian teachings were
accepted almost unquestioningly by the vast majority in the western world from about the 4th
century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine made it legal to practice Christianity with the
Edict of Milan, until approximately the 18th century, when a number of thinkers elucidated
philosophies that were the seeds of the coming intellectual revolt against Christianity.

The true world theory of Christianity is often seen as imitating in many respects some of the
ideas of Plato, most prominently in regards to Plato’s views on the afterlife. Some have
suggested a direct Platonic influence on Christian teachings as many early Christian
theologians, such as St. Augustine, were greatly influenced by Platonic and neo-Platonic ideas.

One of Plato’s ideas that some believe influenced Christianity was his idea of the soul. Plato
claimed that each individual has an immortal soul, which was their true self, and the goal of life
was to liberate this soul from the confines of the body and have it enter the true world, which he
called the reality of Forms. Thus it is apparent that the notions of the afterlife put forth by Plato
and by Christian theologians, although differing in some respects, are fundamentally very
similar.

Eternal true world theories, along with all the other true world theories we have investigated in
this lecture, stave off nihilism by granting individuals with a meaning to their existence, or in
other words with a purpose to their lives which inevitably overcomes the temporal, and
sometimes miserable, nature of earthly existence.

Now that we have a clear understanding of the nature and variety of true world theories, we are
in a position to proceed to understand Nietzsche’s declaration ‘god is dead’. In the next lecture
we will investigate why Nietzsche thought ‘god is dead’, and what exactly he meant by such a
pronouncement. This will prepare us for the following lecture, where we investigate the
phenomenon of nihilism from Nietzsche’s perspective.

SUFFERING AND THE MEANING OF LIFE

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In the last lecture we introduced nihilism, discussed its history and significance, and introduced
the four main types of nihilism: moral, epistemological, cosmic, and existential nihilism. We
explained how existential nihilism encompasses the other three types of nihilism, and defined
this type as the conviction that life is meaningless, or in other words, that it lacks an identifiable
purpose.

In this lecture we are going to take the first steps towards understanding Nietzsche’s ideas
about nihilism in anticipation of the later lectures which examine his thoughts on how to
overcome it. In particular, in this lecture we will explain why it is human beings need there to be
a meaning to life, the connection between the need for meaning and suffering, and why
traditionally this meaning has been posited to exist in another reality.

In the last lecture we introduced the notion that human beings need to believe that life has a
meaning, and in cases where one is incapable of such a belief existential nihilism often results.
Nietzsche was a thinker extremely sensitive to the importance and significance of this need.
This sensitivity is apparent in a passage from his book, The Gay Science where he wrote:

“Gradually, man has become a fantastic animal that has to fulfill one more condition of
existence than any other animal: man has to believe, to know, from time to time why he
exists; his race cannot flourish without a periodic trust in life.” (The Gay Science,
Friedrich Nietzsche)

Countless other thinkers have examined and attempted to understand this universal need for
meaning, or as Nietzsche put it, this need of man to know ‘why he exists’. For example, the
philosopher Ernest Becker noted that there have been reports of some primitive tribes who were
unable to continue living after they were exposed to the influence of Western society for the first
time, as this led to the realization that the meaning to life, of which they had previously been so
certain, was not written in the fabric of the universe, so to speak.

In his book the Birth and Death of Meaning Becker explained that:

“Anthropologists have long known that when a tribe of people lose their feeling that their
way of life is worth-while they may stop reproducing, or in large numbers simply lie down
and die beside streams full of fish: food is not the primary nourishment of man.” (The
Birth and Death of Meaning, Ernest Becker)

Becker in fact considered the need for meaning in life to be more important than did Nietzsche.
Mankind must not only believe life to have meaning in order to flourish, as Nietzsche alluded to,
but for Becker, mankind needs to be convinced life has meaning in order to survive at all.

What is it about human existence which creates the need for individuals to believe life has
meaning? In the last lecture we noted that Arthur Schopenhauer argued that it is the inevitability
of suffering combined with the awareness of the inescapability of death which creates the need

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for there to be a meaning to life. Nietzsche too, likely influenced directly by Schopenhauer,
claimed that the need for there to be a meaning to life is actually intimately related with the need
for there to be a meaning to suffering.

In his work On the Genealogy of Morals, he wrote:

“Man, the bravest of animals, and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not
repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a
meaning for it, a purpose of suffering. The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering
itself, was the curse that lay over mankind so far.” (On the Genealogy of Morals,
Friedrich Nietzsche)

More specifically Nietzsche believed that the ubiquitous need for there to be a meaning to life is
caused by the fact that this life is filled with suffering, pain, loss, fear, anxiety, and ends not in
happiness but in death. Thus, in order to endure the hardships of human existence, it is
necessary for individuals to believe that their suffering has a purpose.

As we discussed in the introductory lecture the purpose of life – and hence if one agreed with
Nietzsche – the purpose of suffering, has traditionally been thought to lie outside of this earthly
existence. In order to find a meaning to life, individuals have posited the existence of another
reality, thought to be superior to the world we experience in our day to day lives. The goal of life,
according to those who hold such beliefs, is to attain entry into this superior reality. The question
which must now be considered is why the meaning of life has traditionally been found in another
reality, and not in this one.

While for many people human existence seems to be filled with evil, suffering, boredom, loss,
and fear, there are moments in virtually everyone’s life where they experience a blissful sense
of utter serenity and joy. For most people these moments are few and far between, but when
one has such an experience the intensity of it will often leave a permanent mark on their mind.
Such experiences can cause an individual to set up a dichotomy between their typical
experience in life, which the German philosopher Goethe described as a “the perpetual rolling of
a rock that must be raised up again forever.” and those rare experiences of pure joy.

The creation of a dichotomy between those rare moments of bliss and one’s typical experience
of boredom and suffering, creates the desire to live a life filled only with those moments of joy.
Individuals work ceaselessly to satiate their goals and desires, in hopes that in doing so pain
and suffering will disappear from their life and they will be left with a lasting happiness.

However, try as we might, this ideal of everlasting lasting joy is an illusion, and individuals with
sober minds soon realize that in this earthly existence utopian happiness is an impossibility.
Rather, as human beings suffering seems to be an inescapable part of life with complete relief
from it only possible with the annihilation of our existence, or in other words death.

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This view of earthly existence as inhospitable to lasting happiness has driven many to very
pessimistic views on life. Nietzsche in fact believed that pessimism was a preliminary form or
doorway to nihilism, as we discussed in our first lecture of the series.

People come to pessimistic views on life from innumerable personal experiences, but those who
do reach the view that this earthly existence is completely inhospitable to the ideal of lasting
happiness have two main options. The first option is to claim that life, since it is filled with pain
and suffering and ends in complete annihilation, is meaningless, or in other words one can
become an existential nihilist. However, this is an option which most people attempt to avoid at
all costs, for the despair felt over the meaninglessness of life can in extreme cases leave one
bed-ridden and depressed, unable to strive or work towards anything.

Leo Tolstoy is a paradigmatic example of an individual who, after a spiritual crisis, became an
existential nihilist for a period of time. He wrote:

“My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and I could not help
doing these things; but there was no life, for there were no wishes the fulfillment of which
I could consider reasonable. If I desired anything, I knew in advance that whether I
satisfied my desire or not, nothing would come of it. Had a fairy come and offered to fulfil
my desires I should not have known what to ask. If in moments of intoxication I felt
something which, though not a wish, was a habit left by former wishes, in sober
moments I knew this to be a delusion and that there was really nothing to wish for. I
could not even wish to know the truth, for I guessed of what it consisted. The truth was
that life is meaningless. I had as it were lived, lived, and walked, walked, till I had come
to a precipice and saw clearly that there was nothing ahead of me but destruction. It was
impossible to stop, impossible to go back, and impossible to close my eyes or avoid
seeing that there was nothing ahead but suffering and real death — complete
annihilation.” (A Confession, Leo Tolstoy)”

The second option has traditionally been the much more favoured option, as it is obvious from
the passage just quoted that nihilism is not a pleasant state for one to experience. This option
involves degrading this earthly existence, and positing the existence of a superior reality.
Common examples of this superior reality is the heaven of Christianity, or Plato’s world of
Forms, although there are many different varieties of such worlds. Nietzsche referred to this
option as an escape in a passage from The Will to Power, as with this option one literally
escapes from nihilism. He wrote:

“…an escape remains: to pass sentence on this whole world of becoming as a deception
and to invent a world beyond it, a true world.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

This second option staves off nihilism by condemning this world as an inferior and deceptive
world, and claiming that a more valuable true world exists apart from this earthly reality. A true
world is an alternate utopian reality, a reality filled with happiness, bliss, and truth. It confers

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meaning on life by claiming that even though this earthly existence is for the most part a
miserable ordeal, by living right one is able to enter into a true world and obtain that which all
human beings want: a life filled with indestructible happiness and joy.

William James, in his book Varieties of Religious Experience, echoes the idea that what humans
want is to rid themselves of all the detestable aspects of earthly existence and live a life full of
lasting happiness and bliss:

“The fact that we can die, that we can be ill at all, is what perplexes us; the fact that we
now for a moment live and are well is irrelevant to that perplexity. We need a life not
correlated with death, a health not liable to illness, a kind of good that will not perish, a
good in fact that flies beyond the Goods of nature.” (Varieties of Religious Experience,
William James)

It is this desire to live such a utopian life, along with the realization that this earthly existence is
inhospitable to such a life, which leads to an individual believing in a true world, and in doing so
staving off the existential nihilism which afflicted Tolstoy.

Hopefully it is clear at this point the argument put forth by Nietzsche, along with other thinkers,
that it is suffering and the realization of what one is headed for, which in Tolstoy’s words, is
‘complete annihilation’, that causes individuals to posit the existence of what Nietzsche called a
true world. Belief that entry into such a world is possible keeps existential nihilism at bay by
creating an identifiable purpose for life and all the suffering which accompanies it. As Nietzsche
wrote in his book, the Antichrist:

“Man must be sustained in suffering by a hope so high that no conflict with actuality can
dash it – so high, indeed, that no fulfillment can satisfy it: a hope reaching out beyond
this world.” (The Antichrist, Friedrich Nietzsche)

In the next lecture we will investigate the nature and variety of true world theories, and come to
understand that true world theories come in many subtle and deceptive forms apart from the
well known theories of religion. This will set the stage for an investigation into the consequences
of what Nietzsche proclaimed as ‘the death of god’, which is symbolic of the growing skepticism
in the modern era of belief in true world theories.

We will then conclude the lecture series by showing that Nietzsche did not think nihilism was a
justified position, instead rather he thought of it as a disease. Being a disease, he thought it
necessary for any individual afflicted with it to cure themselves, and believed there to be an
immense benefit in facing nihilism head on and overcoming it.

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ACTIVE AND PASSIVE NIHILISM

We are approaching the end of our journey through Nietzsche’s ideas on nihilism.

In this lecture we will examine the important but often overlooked emotional dimension of
nihilism and introduce how individuals, especially today, utilize secular means to avert nihilism.
We will then look at some of Nietzsche’s key ideas about nihilism which we have yet to cover;
including his view of nihilism as a mere transitional stage, along with his interesting demarcation
between active and passive nihilism.

In his book Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche made a comment which seems especially relevant
to nihilists:

“Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been:
namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious
memoir.” (Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche)

This seems to be especially true of one who tries to defend nihilism; nihilistic philosophical
arguments are usually invented afterwards to defend feelings of despair and dread over the
utter futility of life, rather than being what leads one to such a position in the first place.

Victor Frankl emphasizes this point; nihilism, he states, cannot be treated as an abstract
problem, rather, it is an existential problem that arises when one’s existence in the world
becomes problematic. As he puts it:

“nihilism as it is experienced – the actual ‘existential’ sense of the meaningless and


futility of life – is not the product of an intellectual theory….” (Viktor Frankl)

As has been noted in previous lectures, in order for a meaning or purpose in life to be
satisfactory, and thus to prevent the onset of the emotional feelings associated with nihilism,
most individuals need to be convinced that the purpose they believe in is objective. In other
words, they must believe that such a purpose is not the arbitrary creation of one or a handful of
individuals but rather that it exists written in the fabric of the universe so to speak. Nietzsche
emphasized the point that historically human beings have been granted this assurance through
teachings espoused by what he called a ‘superhuman authority’.

In The Will to Power he explains:

“The nihilistic question “for what?” is rooted in the old habit of supposing that the goal
must be put up, given, demanded from outside – by some superhuman authority.” (The
Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

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But belief in otherworldly sources for the answers to our existential questions has for many over
the past century been harder and harder to swallow.

However, this need to find a purpose to one’s life is an unrelenting force, and today individuals
are increasingly finding ways of averting nihilism which do not involve beliefs in the
supernatural. Instead many are utilizing what can be seen as a secular alternative for finding
meaning and purpose in life.

This alternative, which is a modern phenomenon, is the participation in mass movements. Such
participation often includes supporting a political party or leader, a war, or just strongly
identifying one’s self with their nation.

In the early 20th century, which as we mentioned in the previous lecture was the generation
which Nietzsche prophesized would witness the rise of nihilism, this secular way of averting
nihilism was taken to the extreme, and often resulted in totalitarianism and other revolutionary
movements.

The two most infamous mass movements of the early to mid 20th century were Nazism and
Communism. In an article titled “The Hungry Sheep” published in the early 1950s an astute
writer described the appeal of communism and showed how it provided followers with a
purpose:

“From the outside, the communist may look like an ant in an anthill, but to himself he
may seem to be a comrade helping to carry out a great design – what in another context
would be called the Will of God…”

The author says later in the article in regards to those who joined the communist movement:

“For the first time they ‘belong to’ something, to a ’cause’ – good or bad as it may be, but
something at any rate which transcends their narrow personal interests and opens up a
world in which each has his part to play and all can ‘pull together.’”

Through the feeling that one is an active and contributing member of one’s society, it is possible
for many to obtain, to one degree or another, the existential certitude regarding the meaning of
life which religions used to provide.

We will now proceed to examine some more of Nietzsche’s key ideas regarding nihilism. As we
have already noted in previous lectures, Nietzsche himself went through a period of nihilism,
writing that he had “lived through the whole of nihilism, to the end, leaving it behind, outside
himself.” Through the process of enduring and eventually overcoming nihilism, Nietzsche
obtained intimate knowledge regarding its nature.

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Nietzsche didn’t think of nihilism as a satisfactory philosophical position so much as he thought
of it as a disease, calling it ‘pathological’. Like any disease, those afflicted with nihilism should
strive to rid themselves of it and for this reason, thought Nietzsche, nihilism could be considered
as a transitional stage in one’s life. If one is stricken by nihilism they must use it to their
advantage and learn the lessons which it has to offer, but ultimately it should not be the
stopping point in one’s philosophical journey.

The reason for Nietzsche’s view of nihilism as a transitional stage was because he saw the
nihilistic conclusion that life is meaningless as mistaken; a mistake resulting from an erroneous
generalization. Nihilists, after coming to the realization that the beliefs they had previously held
regarding the meaning of life are false, all too often take this to imply that all beliefs in regards to
life’s meaning are equally delusional. Instead of merely rejecting their old set of beliefs and
continuing the search, they see the search as futile and give up on trying to find meaning
altogether.

This erroneous generalization is similar to the line of reasoning taken by an individual who has
their heart broken and proceeds to claim that love does not exist. The nihilist, in a similar
manner, ashamed at themselves for believing in a meaning to life which they now understand to
be false, makes the erroneous claim that there is no meaning to life whatsoever.

“Nihilism”, Nietzsche wrote, “represents a pathological transitional stage (what is


pathological is the tremendous generalization, the inference that there is no meaning at
all….” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche).

It is when the nihilist realizes the error in his reasoning that nihilism becomes a transitional
stage. Nietzsche arrived at this insight when he realized that the search for meaning and value
in life is not futile, it is just that human beings have traditionally looked for meaning in the wrong
places.

In fact, not only did he think it was possible to live a meaningful life, but Nietzsche thought all
previous interpretations of existence had greatly underestimated just how meaningful human
lives could be.

As we have discussed in earlier lectures, traditionally meaning has been found in a true world,
apart from this earthly existence. But the benefit for the nihilist who rejects true world beliefs is
that they are then forced to search for meaning on this earth, if they are to have any hope
overcoming the nihilistic disease. Those bold enough to undertake such a task, would according
the Nietzsche, soon find that life is far more valuable than they ever could have imagined.

He wrote:

“In sum: the world might be far more valuable than we used to believe; we must see
through the naiveté of our ideals, and while we thought that we had accorded it the

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highest interpretation, we may not have given our human existence a moderately fair
value.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Nietzsche didn’t think everyone in a state of nihilism was capable of curing themselves. He in
fact differentiated between two types of nihilists; those who have the strength to overcome it,
and those who do not. The former he called ‘active nihilists’, while the latter he called ‘passive
nihilists’.

“Nihilism. It is ambiguous: A. Nihilism as a sign of increased power of the spirit: as active


nihilism. B. Nihilism as decline and recession of the power of the spirit: as passive
nihilism.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

The passive nihilist is the individual, who when confronted with nihilism, sees it as an endpoint
or a sign to stop the search for meaning. In short, this type of individual lacks the strength to
make anything of their life, and unfortunately many who reach this stage will, as we discussed
earlier, out of sheer desperation attach themselves to some form of mass movement in a final
attempt to find an objective purpose to life.

Eric Hoffer, in his book The True Believer, provides an intriguing analysis of such an individual.

“To the frustrated a mass movement offers substitutes either for the whole self or for the
elements which make life bearable and which they cannot evoke out of their individual
resources.” (The True Believer, Eric Hoffer)

Like the passive nihilist, the active nihilist experiences the existential confusion and
disorientation which accompanies the feeling that life is utterly futile and meaningless. However,
instead of succumbing to this despair or diving blindly into a mass movement in order to soothe
one’s fears, as the passive nihilist does, Nietzsche envisioned the active nihilist as an individual
who charges forward and consciously destroys all the beliefs which previously gave meaning to
their lives.

“[Nihilism] reaches its maximum of relative strength as a violent force of destruction – as


active nihilism.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

After ridding one’ self of all the beliefs and attachments which previously gave their life meaning,
the active nihilist stands alone in the universe, a true independent free spirit able to create
meaning instead of having it imposed on him by an authority figure. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Nietzsche poetically emphasizes this point:

“A new pride my ego taught me, and this I teach men: no longer to bury one’s head in
the sand of heavenly things, but to bear it freely, an earthly head, which creates a
meaning for the earth.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

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In the next lecture, the final of this series, we will investigate some of the ideas Nietzsche
thought could help one overcome nihilism and thus allow them to create a fulfilling and
meaningful life. We will investigate such fascinating topics as Nietzsche’s attempt to ‘revalue
suffering’.

OVERCOMING NIHILISM

We have reached the final lecture in this series on nihilism. In the last lecture we learned that
while Nietzsche saw nihilism as a disease, for those he characterized as active nihilists, nihilism
presents an opportunity to greatly improve one’s life.

In this lecture we will investigate some of the ideas Nietzsche thought could assist those
afflicted with nihilistic doubt.

Nietzsche was very critical of mankind. To him, most human beings were pitiful creatures, and
he often characterized the masses as ‘herd animals’. He reached such views because he saw
the overwhelming majority of human beings as depressingly mediocre and weak. Every person
has the potential to become great, to realize their dreams, to become what Nietzsche called a
‘higher man’, yet most people conform and follow the well trodden path to mediocrity.

Even those individuals considered ‘great’ by the masses, Nietzsche saw as nothing but
individuals on the higher end of the spectrum of mediocrity.

“I saw them both naked”, Nietzsche tells us in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “the greatest
people and the smallest people – all-too-similar to one another; even the greatest was
all-too-human. The greatest was all-too-small!” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke
Zarathustra)

Nietzsche longed for the emergence of truly great individuals, and in fact devoted his
philosophical writings to such potential individuals. He thought that his ideas could motivate
people to remove themselves from the herd and actualize their potential. In his autobiography,
Ecce Homo, Nietzsche amusingly conveyed this idea.

“From this moment forward all my writings are fish hooks: perhaps I know how to fish as
well as anyone? – If nothing was caught, I am not to blame. There were no fish.” (Ecce
Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche)

In order to realize one’s potential, Nietzsche thought it necessary not to find a much needed
purpose to life by clinging to a religious creed or mass movement, but instead, by looking within.
Located in every single person is a seed of unrealized potential, and one’s purpose in life should
be to see that such a potential is actualized.

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In his biography on Nietzsche, Rudiger Safranski elucidates, using a passage from Nietzsche’s
journals, exactly what Nietzsche thought to be the meaning of life:

“…we are not humans from the start; we need to become human. Toward this end, we
need the insight “that only we are responsible for ourselves, that accusations that we
have missed our life’s calling can be directed only at us, not some higher powers”. We
are in no need of the delusion of a supernatural world, because the very task of
becoming human is the truly colossal achievement.” (Nietzsche: A Philosophical
Biography: Rudiger Safranski)

Nietzsche sometimes referred to such a purpose as the journey towards ‘becoming who you
are’. In his book, The Gay Science, he wrote:

“We, however, want to become those we are – human beings who are new, unique,
incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves.” (The Gay Science,
Friedrich Nietzsche)

While everyone has an inner desire to become the best person they can and to realize their
dreams, for most life is filled with disappointment, regret and often guilt at missed opportunities.

In one of his early essays, titled Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche pinpointed fear and laziness
as two universal human characteristics which prevent most people from realizing their potential.

“In his heart every man knows quite well that, being unique, he will be in the world only
once and that there will be no second chance…he knows it but hides it like a bad
conscience–why? From fear of his neighbor, who demands conformity and cloaks
himself with it. But what is it that forces the individual to fear his neighbor, to think and
act like a member of a herd, and to have no joy in himself? Modesty, perhaps, in a few
rare cases. For the majority it is idleness, inertia, in short that propensity for
laziness…men are even lazier than they are fearful.” (Untimely Meditations, Friedrich
Nietzsche)

The task of becoming who you are Nietzsche thought to be the most difficult task there is.
Everyone has an inner voice that urges them to accomplish something great and to chase after
their dream, but most people repress this inner voice because they lack the courage and
strength to listen to it.

“…they fear their higher self”, Nietzsche wrote in Human, all too Human, “because, when
it speaks, it speaks demandingly.” (Human, all too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Nietzsche had some ideas for how one could find their purpose and the work towards it. Firstly,
he thought an individual required an ‘organizing idea’ – some ultimate goal they desired to

25
accomplish. Such a goal could be to construct a great philosophical system, to become a top
class athlete, make the next medical breakthrough, or to summit the most dangerous mountain
peaks in the world.

The specifics of the goal are not important, what is important is the difficulty of the task; the
more difficult it is, the greater one will have to become in order to accomplish it.

How does one find such a goal? There are some people who have an explicit dream in life and
know exactly what their heart desires above anything else. But most people, even if they had
the freedom and means to chase after a dream, wouldn’t know what to do. Nietzsche had some
advice for these dream-less individuals; look within yourself, and find out what you love, or as
he puts it in Untimely Meditations:

“Let the youthful soul look back on life with the question: what have you truly loved up to
now, what has elevated your soul, what has mastered it and at the same time delighted
it? Place these venerated objects before you in a row, and perhaps they will yield for
you, through their nature and their sequence, a law, the fundamental law of your true
self…for your true nature lies, not hidden deep within you, but immeasurably high above
you, or at least above that which you normally take to be yourself.” (Untimely
Meditations, Friedrich Nietzsche)

An individual who finds a goal, and sets out on a path in life towards its realization, will soon find
that such a path is fraught with setbacks, difficulties, and pain. The pain and suffering that
those who strive after mighty goals inevitably face will in many case cause them to flee back to
the comforts of mediocrity. Nietzsche thought such failed attempts occur largely because most
people only see a negative side to suffering and are ignorant regarding its value.

If you have been following this lecture series, you will remember in lecture 2 we saw that the
inescapability of suffering has led many to assume very pessimistic views regarding human
existence.

Suffering, it is almost universally believed, is evil. When people suffer they automatically feel
there is something wrong with them, something they need to ‘fix’. And practically everybody,
when they feel some sort of psychological pain arising, at one point or another will search for
any form of distraction.

Nietzsche, as we will see, was intimately familiar with suffering and pain. His intimacy forced
him to question the universal assumption that suffering is intrinsically bad. He concluded that
people think suffering is evil because it is unpleasant and painful, yet this is a false conclusion.
Just because something is unpleasant or brings us discomfort, he reasoned, doesn’t mean it
lacks value.

In The Gay Science he elucidated this idea:

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“There is as much wisdom in pain as there is in pleasure…that it hurts is no argument
against it but its essence.” (The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche)

As we mentioned, Nietzsche was in a good position to philosophize on the nature of suffering.


He endured more suffering, pain, and hardship than most can imagine. “I am more of a
battlefield than a man”, wrote Nietzsche in his autobiography. A large portion of his adult life
was spent struggling with physical ailments, specifically fits of vomiting and intense migraines
which would sometimes last for weeks on end, which doctors could not localize to a specific
cause.

He also isolated himself for much of his life, and rejected any emotional or psychological
support from those closest to him, and strove to deal with all his problems with his own
individual resources.

In addition to all this, despite being certain that his philosophy was of great value to mankind, he
was largely ignored and never saw any success or recognition before his descent into madness.
He was tormented with an extreme sense of loneliness and self doubt, afraid that his great
works would sink unnoticed in the tumultuous river of human history.

However, over time, Nietzsche began to realize that his bouts with sickness and suffering
actually presented great opportunities as they usually preceded great periods of growth. He also
noticed that his more powerful and deep philosophical insights had sprung spontaneously from
his bouts with pain.

Suffering is not evil, he came to understand, but instead should be considered among the
greatest of all goods.

It has long been assumed that the chief end which human beings strive for is happiness.
Nietzsche didn’t question this, he himself longed for what he called ‘the great happiness’,
however, he thought that practically all individuals go about trying to arrive at happiness the
wrong way. Most do so by continually engaging in hedonistic activities, or in other words those
which are performed solely for the pleasure they provide.

“But what if pleasure and pain should be so closely connected”, Nietzsche asked in his
book The Gay Science, “that he who wants the greatest possible amount of one must
also have the greatest possible amount of the other?” (The Gay Science, Friedrich
Nietzsche)

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, his most poetic of works, he expressed this same idea:

“I must first go down deeper than ever I descended—deeper into pain than ever I
descended, down into its blackest flood. Thus my destiny wants it….Whence come the

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highest mountains? I once asked. Then I learned that they came out of the sea. The
evidence is written in their rocks and in the walls of their peaks. It is out of the deepest
depth that the highest must come to its height” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich
Nietzsche)

The key to suffering, Nietzsche thought, is to know how to utilize it to one’s advantage.
Everybody inevitably suffers, but, it is only the great individual who not only willingly faces and
endures suffering, but invites it in with the knowledge that it presents an opportunity for growth
and an increase of wisdom. “I assess the power of a will by how much resistance, pain, torture it
endures and knows how to turn to its advantage.”, Nietzsche wrote in a passage contained in
The Will to Power.

We can see that Nietzsche saw that is was essential for one to learn how to live with and utilize
the beneficial aspects of suffering. “Who will attain anything great if he does not find in himself
the strength and will to inflict great suffering?”, asked Nietzsche.

A good way to conclude this lecture is with a shocking passage from The Will to Power which
effectively reveals the importance of suffering for Nietzsche. In the passage Nietzsche
addresses the potential higher man, the one who he dedicated all his philosophical writings to.
He wrote:

“To those human beings who are of any concern to me, I wish suffering, desolation,
sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with
profound self contempt, the torture of self mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished:
I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether
one is worth anything or not – that one endures.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich
Nietzsche)

NIETZSCHE AND METAPHYSICS

[Video]

NIETZSCHE AND SELF OVERCOMING

Nietzsche thought that the universe was the manifestation of an underlying force which he
called will to power. “This world is the will to power – and nothing besides!”, he proclaimed.
Nietzsche characterized the will to power, the basic underlying essence of the universe, as “an
insatiable desire to manifest power”. In this lecture we will discuss what this means in an ethical
context, or in other words, in the context of how one should live their life.

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To do this, we will first take a look at Nietzsche’s views regarding Darwinian evolution and we
will see that it was his understanding of evolution, or shall we say misunderstanding, which
provided him with part of his motivation for formulating his doctrine of the will to power

In the year 1859 Charles Darwin published his famous work On the Origin of Species, and it
was in this work that he elaborated his theory of evolution by natural selection. The basis of
Darwin’s theory is relatively simple: First of all Darwin posited that all individuals within a
species differ in some degree from all other individuals.

Most of these differences are insignificant, but some are significant enough to provide the
individual organism with advantages or disadvantages in their struggle for existence.

Those individuals with traits that are advantageous to their survival are ones more likely to
reproduce and hence pass on these traits to their offspring, while those with traits that are
disadvantageous to their survival typically won’t live long enough to pass on their traits. This is
Darwin’s famous principle which he called ‘natural selection’.

Darwin understood that natural selection was an unplanned and undesigned process – because
of this an organism’s fate often lay in the hands of chance:

“A grain in the balance will determine which individual shall live and which shall die, –
which variety of species shall increase in number, and which shall decrease, or finally
become extinct.” (The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin)

Darwin posited natural selection as being an undesigned process, however, he was unsure of
whether there might be an overarching goal or purpose to the process of evolution – some
ultimate end all life was moving toward- and he never made any clear statement affirming or
denying such an idea.

Yet there were many supporters of Darwin who were unshakeable in their faith that there was a
purpose implicit in the process of evolution.

Herbert Spencer was one such individual; he was a prominent advocate of evolution in the 19th
century – Spencer coined the well known phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ and popularized the
term evolution – a term which Darwin had used only sparingly.

In the words of the historian of biology, Peter Bowler,

“Spencer advocated a system of cosmic progress, which included a theory of the


inevitable evolution of life toward higher forms.” (Evolution: The History of an Idea, Peter
Bowler).

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Spencer thought that implicit in evolution was a goal – all life was moving towards this goal, and
upon its attainment human beings would become the ‘perfect’ creature which he called the
“ideally moral man” – or in other words, individuals who are perfectly adapted to both their
physical and social environment.

Nietzsche agreed with the general idea of evolution but was not directly familiar with the work of
Darwin, and rather gained most of his understanding of evolution through the works of Spencer.
Despite agreeing with the fundamental idea of evolution, Nietzsche was opposed to in
particular two of Spencer’s ideas regarding the nature of evolution.

His first disagreement stemmed from Spencer’s belief that evolution resulted in the inevitable
progress of life. In his book The Antichrist, Nietzsche revealed his dislike for such a view saying:

“Mankind surely does not represent an evolution toward a better or stronger or higher
level, as progress is now understood. This “progress” is merely a modern idea, which is
to say, a false idea. The European of today, in his essential worth, falls far below the
European of the Renaissance; the process of evolution does not necessarily mean
elevation, enhancement, strengthening.” (The Anti-Christ, Friedrich Nietzsche)

The second idea of Spencer’s which Nietzsche disagreed with was the idea that all organisms
ultimately strive after self preservation.

Spencer believed that, in the words of Gregory Moore,

“the ultimate end of all conduct is the prolongation and increase of life – in other words,
the preservation of the individual organism and the species to which it belongs.”

Nietzsche falsely assumed Darwin shared with Spencer the idea that all of an organism’s
behaviours were aimed at self preservation, and it was this false assumption that led him to
disagree with Darwinian evolution in favour of his own view of evolution based on the will to
power.

Darwinian evolution, instead of claiming that all an organism’s behaviours are aimed at survival,
states that behaviours which are advantageous are one’s which will be preserved via natural
selection – however, it is important to note that according to Darwinian evolution, an organism
does not explicitly aim at survival. This is where Nietzsche misunderstood Darwinian evolution.

The idea that all of an organism’s behaviours and actions are aimed at survival has its roots in
thinkers who lived before the theory of evolution became popular in the late 19th century.
Arthur Schopenhauer, a philosopher born in the late 18th century and one who greatly
influenced Nietzsche, thought all things in this universe were manifestations of an underlying
essence which he called will. As will, all life forms are dominated by a “blind striving for

30
existence without end or aim”. All living creatures, including human beings, were dominated by
this irrational desire to remain alive. He called this desire the will to live.

Nietzsche was vehemently opposed to the idea that a will to live or drive to survive was the
fundamental drive within all organisms. He thought the drive to remain alive was too cowardly a
goal. Instead, he claimed that as will to power the fundamental drive of all things was an
“insatiable desire to manifest power. We will now examine exactly what such a statement
means.

In his book Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche called himself an “Anti-Darwin” due to his rejection of
the idea that organisms seek above all else the perpetuation and prolongation of their existence.
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche pinpointed the problem he had with this view:

“Physiologists should think twice before positioning the drive for self preservation as the
cardinal drive of an organic being. Above all, a living thing wants to discharge its strength
– life itself is will to power -: self preservation is only one of the indirect and most
infrequent consequences of this.” (Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche)

As will to power, the ultimate end of all living things was growth. Nietzsche expressed this idea
in a number of passages:

“It can be shown that every living thing does everything it can not to preserve itself but to
become more.”(The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

In another passage he reiterates this idea:

“To have and to want to have more – growth, in one word – that is life itself.” (The Will to
Power, Friedrich Nietzsche).

To say that as will to power all things have an insatiable desire to manifest power is to say that
they have an insatiable desire for unending growth.

With this idea in mind, we will proceed to consider how Nietzsche thought that we could
maximize our own growth as human beings and therefore synchronize ourselves with the
essence of the universe.

In order to grow and expand and thus fulfill the fundamental desire of life itself, Nietzsche
thought it was first necessary to desire something – an individual who sits around without a care
in the world is an individual who will remain stagnant. “One must need to be strong”, Nietzsche
tells us, “otherwise one will never become strong.” He therefore believed that an individual must
set a lofty goal that they desire to attain above anything else, and especially above what he
thought to be the petty desire to feel content, as Nietzsche put it:

31
“That something is a hundred times more important than the question of whether we feel
well or not: basic instinct of all strong natures…In sum, that we have a goal for which
one does not hesitate…to risk every danger, to take upon oneself whatever is bad and
worst: the great passion.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

When one sets a lofty goal and strives with all their might to attain this goal, they inevitably
encounter resistances. These resistances, Nietzsche maintains, are not painful annoyances, but
instead are necessary for growth to occur. Pain, suffering, and being thwarted in one’s attempts
to accomplish a goal are the necessary preconditions for growth and hence an increase in one’s
power:

“…human beings do not seek pleasure and avoid displeasure. What human beings
want, whatever the smallest organism wants, is an increase of power; driven by that will
they seek resistance, they need something that opposes it – displeasure, as an obstacle
to their will to power, is therefore a normal fact; human beings do not avoid it, they are
rather in continual need of it.” (The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

It is by overcoming the resistances which stand in the way of attaining a great passion that an
individual fulfills the basic desire of all life – that being growth. For this reason Nietzsche
characterizes growth as an act of self overcoming. As will to power, all life in desiring growth of
necessity must overcome itself – he therefore claimed that self overcoming is written into the
fabric of the universe. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche proclaims:

“And life confided the secret to me: behold, it said, I am that which must always
overcome itself.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche).

In conceiving the world as will to power, Nietzsche thought an individual could have access to a
powerful motivating force. In the end, Nietzsche thought, all that matters in life is how much one
has grown and overcome their previous limitations as this determines how powerful one is, and
in turn determines one’s worth as a human being. All men are not equal, thought Nietzsche, the
powerful individual, the one who is devoted to self overcoming, is the most valuable. He said:

“What determines your rank is the quanta of power you are; the rest is cowardice.” (The
Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche)

It is important to note that Nietzsche didn’t think the ideally powerful individual was a physically
strong individual or even an individual with power over others – psychological and spiritual
strength represents the ultimate power, he thought, and it matters more that one has power over
one’s own self rather than power over others. And in order to achieve power over one’s own
self, Nietzsche thought it necessary to set a lofty goal and strive with all one’s might to achieve
such a goal. In doing so, an individual will live a life of self overcoming, and thus fulfill one’s
purpose as a manifestation of the will to power.

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NIETZSCHE AND THE WILL TO POWER

[Video]

INTRODUCTION TO NIETZSCHE

In this lecture we will provide an introduction to some of Friedrich Nietzsche’s main philosophical
ideas.

We will investigate his views on morality, nihilism, suffering, truth, the overman, amor fati, and
the eternal recurrence. Before we proceed we must note that perhaps more than any other
philosopher, Nietzsche’s ideas are open to multiple interpretations. In this video we will provide
one such interpretation.

For Nietzsche philosophy was not, as he put it, a “critique of words by means of other words.”
(Untimely Meditations, Friedrich Nietzsche).

Instead, for Nietzsche philosophy had a definite practical purpose: that being, to facilitate the
emergence of the great individual who dedicates their life to growth and self overcoming.

Nietzsche believed that such a pursuit would provide one with the ability to completely affirm life
in the face of suffering, pain, and tragedy. “There are heights of the soul from which even
tragedy ceases to look tragic” wrote Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil. The great individual
attains these heights.

Nietzsche viewed himself as the educator of such a great individual, whom he called the higher
man. For this reason he saw himself as writing not for the masses but for the potential higher
man alone:

“These alone are my readers, my rightful readers, my predestined readers: what do the
rest matter? – The rest are merely mankind” (The Antichrist).

The higher man, Nietzsche maintained, is separated from the rest of mankind by the constitution
of his internal being. Within the higher man exists an array of powerful and potent drives
engaged in a continual battle with each other. The higher man, in other words, is a chaotic being
who is at constant war with himself, and therefore one who suffers deeply and is always in
danger of self destructing. In order to attain greatness and the ability to affirm life, Nietzsche
believed that the higher man must impose order on his internal chaos. This is his life’s mission:

33
“To become master of the chaos one is…that is the grand ambition here.” (The Will to
Power).
Because he suffers so deeply from the chaos that he is, there exists the possibility that the
higher man will evade his life’s mission and instead seek out the comforts of mediocrity via
conformity.

Nietzsche postulated that within every individual exists a ‘herd instinct’, that is, an innate need to
obey and conform to the masses. Individuals satiate this need by obeying the accepted morality,
that is, the designations of what is good and what is evil, of one’s culture.

“Morality is the best of all devices for leading mankind by the nose!”, proclaimed Nietzsche in
The Antichrist. Such a morality, since it is accepted by the masses, Nietzsche called ‘herd
morality’.

Nietzsche maintained that herd morality serves a clear purpose: it instills in mediocre individuals
the conviction that their weakness is not a fault, but instead a strength.

“Verily, I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because
they had no claws”, Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

On the other hand, herd morality maintains that those qualities which the herd lack, are evil. As
Nietzsche put it: “High and independent spirituality, the will to stand alone, even a powerful
reason are experienced as dangers; everything that elevates an individual above the herd and
intimidates the neighbor is henceforth called evil.” (Beyond Good and Evil) Therefore, with herd
morality, as Nietzsche amusingly quipped, “the “sheep” gains in respect” (Beyond Good and
Evil)

Since sheep-like qualities are championed by herd morality as being ‘good’, herd morality
pressures individuals into becoming good, that is, weak and obedient. The higher man, if he is
to achieve greatness must escape the clutches of herd morality, and renounce it in favour of his
own self created and life affirming morality:

“Can you give yourself your own evil and your own good and hang your own will over
yourself as a law?” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)”

In order to escape from the herd and live according to his own life affirming morality, Nietzsche
thought it was essential for the higher man to separate himself physically from the herd and live
a life of solitude.

Nietzsche believed that out of fear and laziness, the masses structure their lives so as to blind
themselves to the deep questions of human existence:

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“for the objective of all human arrangements is through distracting one’s thoughts to
cease to be aware of life.” (Untimely Meditations)

The higher man, if he is to achieve greatness in life, must contemplate questions which the herd
is too weak and scared to ponder. And to do this, he needs his solitude:

“For now he will have to descend into the depths of existence with a string of curious
questions on his lips: Why do I live? What lesson have I learned from life? How do I
become what I am and why do I suffer from being what I am?” (Untimely Meditations)

According to Nietzsche the deepest questions one can ask in life are: “why do I live?”, and “why
do I suffer?’. In fact, Nietzsche believed that these two questions are really one and the same.
Man needs to believe life has a meaning or purpose because of the fact that he suffers so
deeply, and thus wants to be assured that he suffers for a reason:

“Man, the bravest of animals and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not
repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a
meaning for it, a purpose of suffering. The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering
itself, was the curse that lay over mankind so far.” (On the Genealogy of Morals)

With his proclamation “God is dead”, Nietzsche prophesied the coming of an age when the
interpretations of life’s purpose which had been dominant up to that point, most prominently the
belief in a god, would be unveiled for what they are: mere myths or stories. Without the
conviction that life has a goal or a purpose, Nietzsche understood that many individuals would
fall into despair under the suspicion that we are nothing but meaningless animals in a
meaningless universe.

Nietzsche discerned that this dark suspicion would usher in a state of nihilism, which is the
belief that “everything lacks meaning” (The Will to Power). Without a goal or purpose to impose
meaning on one’s suffering, one is left with the despair-ridden conviction that one suffers for no
reason at all:

“Nihilism appears at that point, not that the displeasure of existence has become greater
than before but because one has come to mistrust any “meaning” in suffering, indeed in
existence. …it now seems as if there is no meaning at all in existence, as if everything
were in vain.” (The Will to Power).

Although Nietzsche himself struggled with nihilism throughout his life, he didn’t believe life was
devoid of meaning. Instead, he came to realize that nihilism is a consequence of the misguided
attempt to acquire objective knowledge, or in other words, the desire for there to be an objective
meaning to life that an individual can come to know.

35
Nietzsche believed that not only was there no objective meaning to life, but he claimed that truth
does not exist and therefore objective knowledge about anything, including the ‘meaning of life’
is an impossibility.

Instead, according to Nietzsche an individual is always confined to know the world through
one’s own personal interpretation of it:

“The task of painting the picture of life, however often poets and philosophers may pose
it, is nonetheless senseless: even under the hands of the greatest painter-thinkers all
that has ever eventuated is pictures and miniatures out of one life, namely their own –
and nothing else is even possible.” (Human, all too Human)

Since one cannot escape from one’s own personal interpretation, or perspective, of life,
Nietzsche understood that one should give up trying to search for the truth, as “there is no
‘truth'” (The Will to Power), and instead paint a picture, or in other words interpret existence, in a
way that is ‘life promoting’, and for in doing so one will be able to escape nihilism by creating
meaning in one’s life.

Since Nietzsche realized that the deepest question which confronts man is ‘why do I suffer?’, he
understood the desperate need to first and foremost interpret suffering in a manner which would
be life promoting.

Through his analysis of his own suffering, Nietzsche came to understand that “pain is not
considered an objection to life.” (Ecce Homo) Instead, Nietzsche believed that a life without
suffering and pain would be a miserable life, for he believed suffering to be a precondition of
greatness:

“You want, if possible—and there is no more insane “if possible”—to abolish suffering.
And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever…The
discipline of suffering, of great suffering—do you not know that only this discipline has
created all enhancements of man so far?” (Beyond Good and Evil)

With the knowledge that with great suffering comes great advancement, Nietzsche understood
that the higher man would be in need of an ideal, or a vision of perfection, to keep him
motivated in his quest for greatness even in his darkest hours. Nietzsche invented the
Ubermensch, or overman, as such an ideal.

“I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you
done to overcome him?” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

The overman, as an ideal, is a perfect and powerful being, one who has overcome all his inner
fears, weaknesses, and deficiencies, and thus one who soars above the rest of mankind. Since

36
ideals can be approached but never realized on this earth, Nietzsche maintained that “never yet
has there been an overman”. (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

The best one can hope for is to attain the perfection and power of the overman in rapturous
moments, yet it is impossible to maintain this perfection, and after these ecstatic moments one
must always revert back to being ‘human, all too human’.

In his state as ‘human, all too human’, Nietzsche understood that the higher man would become
aware of his deficiencies and weaknesses, and would subsequently feel ashamed at the vast
gulf which separates him from the perfection of the overman. Craving the unattainable
perfection of the overman, the higher man would begin to hate his imperfect self. This self-hate,
Nietzsche paradoxically held, would be the beginning of the higher man’s great love for himself.
For the higher man would soon come to realize that without his inner deficiencies and his hatred
of them, he would have no motivation to grow and overcome himself, and thus would remain
forever stagnant.

“I love the great despisers because they are the great reverers and arrows of longing for
the other shore.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

In the section titled ‘On the Vision and the Riddle’ in Nietzsche’s masterpiece, Thus Spoke
Zarathustra, Nietzsche tells a parable, which is a story with an inherent spiritual lesson, which
conveys how the higher man’s deficiencies are necessary for growth and the movement
towards greatness.

Nietzsche begins the parable by conveying a striking image:

“A young shepherd I saw, writhing, gagging, in spasms, his face distorted, and a heavy
black snake hung out of his mouth. Had I ever seen so much nausea and pale dread on
one face?… My hand tore at the snake and tore in vain; it did not tear the snake out of
his throat. Then it cried out of me: “Bite! Bite its head off! Bite!”.. The shepherd, however,
bit as my cry counseled him; he bit with a good bite. Far away he spewed the head of
the snake—and he jumped up. No longer shepherd, no longer human—one changed,
radiant, laughing! Never yet on earth has a human being laughed as he laughed! O my
brothers, I heard a laughter that was no human laughter.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

In this parable the shepherd represents the higher man, and the black snake the higher man’s
great despair and fears which slither in his being. With the snake in his throat, the shepherd is
the higher man in one of his darkest moments. But as he bites off the snake’s head, he
overcomes his great despair and dark demons and emerges for a rapturous moment as the
overman himself and he laughs a laugh which signifies his power, perfection, and his complete
affirmation of life.

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Nietzsche thought that the complete affirmation of life was the highest state a human being
could attain. He put forth two intertwined concepts to represent the affirmation of life: amor fati,
or love of fate, and the eternal recurrence.

Amor fati, or love of fate, is the culmination of the higher man’s greatness: “My formula for
greatness in a human being is amor fati”, wrote Nietzsche in Ecce Homo. To love fate means to
completely affirm life, and is thus the most difficult task there is. The difficulty lies in the fact that
existence contains so much evil, pain, suffering, and tragedy. How can one completely affirm life
in the presence of so much ugliness?

As we have seen, Nietzsche believed that one must experience great amounts of suffering and
pain if one is to achieve greatness, or as he put it: “It is out of the deepest depth that the highest
must come to its height.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) With this knowledge, he believed the higher
man would understand that evil, pain, suffering, and tragedy are not ugly but actually have an
inherent beauty to them, for latent within these aspects of existence is the potential for growth
and self overcoming. Only if the black snake is crawling down one’s throat can one bite off its
head and laugh a laugh that is no human laughter, but the laughter of the overman:

“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I
shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love
henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly…And all in all and on the
whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer” (The Gay Science)”

In order to determine whether one is in a state of Yes-saying, meaning a state of complete life
affirmation, Nietzsche constructed the eternal recurrence as a psychological test.

In The Gay Science Nietzsche put forth the content of such a test:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness
and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once
more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain
and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small and great in
your life will have to return to you – all in the same succession and sequence…Would
you throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?
Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered
him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”” (The Gay Science)

The higher man, in affirming life, realizes that his tremendous moments were born from his
darkest experiences, and therefore apprehends the inherent beauty in suffering, tragedy, and
evil. With this understanding he does not condemn life as a pessimist despite the profuse
suffering he has endured, but instead celebrates tragedy as a joyous Yes-sayer.

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As he nears his death, the higher man wishes not for the peace of non existence but instead
wishes the eternal recurrence were true so that he could repeat the struggle of life over and
over for eternity.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche conveyed this by saying: “‘Was that life?’ I want to say to
death. ‘Well then! Once more!'”

PESSIMISM OF STRENGTH

“Time is that by virtue of which everything becomes nothingness in our hands and loses
all real value.” (Arthur Schopenhauer)

According to popular thought, pessimism is an outlook which is necessarily associated with


feelings of depression, despair, and hopelessness. However, as is often the case with popular
thought, this idea is false.

Rather some of the most famous pessimist thinkers saw pessimism not as an emotionally
crippling outlook, but as a way of looking at the world which could provide the strength and
knowledge needed to fortify one’s self against the harsh realities of existence.

As Albert Camus noted:

“The idea that a pessimistic philosophy is necessarily one of discouragement is a


puerile[childish] idea, but one that needs too long a refutation.” (Albert Camus)

In this video we will briefly survey the ideas of some of the famous pessimists of the last few
hundred years, and finish by defending a form of pessimism coined a “pessimism of strength” by
the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

While pessimism has been defined in numerous ways, for the purpose of this video we will
categorize the pessimist as holding one central conviction: that being, that although human
beings have been highly successful from an evolutionary standpoint – able to adapt to and
survive in a staggering variety of environments – when it comes to the attainment of a life not
dominated by suffering and dissatisfaction, human beings are failures.

The figure who most comes to mind when one thinks of pessimism, Arthur Schopenhauer,
conveyed this point by saying:

“If the immediate and direct purpose of life is not suffering then our existence is the most
ill-adapted to its purpose in the world”

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Commencing in the 18th century with the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, who is often
heralded as the first modern pessimist, there emerged a number of pessimistic thinkers who
sought to discover the source of the misalignment between us and the world we inhabit.

While these pessimists differed in their diagnosis, as Joshua Dienstag noted in his excellent
book, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit, a common theme pervaded their thought. Human
existence is so ripe with suffering and misery, they maintained, because of the burden which our
uniquely human awareness of time places upon us.

“All the tragedies which we can imagine”, wrote the French philosopher Simone Weil,
“return in the end to the one and only tragedy: the passage of time.”

The 20th century Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran also pinpointed “the demonic character of
time” to be a fundamental problem for human beings. Both our awareness of the past and
future, the pessimists agreed, are responsible for much of the anxiety, fear, regret, and feelings
of guilt which pervade and in a sense define the lives of us all.

Nietzsche was especially sensitive to the burden which our awareness of the past places upon
our being, referring to the past as “the stone ‘it was'”, which cannot be moved or changed no
matter how hard we try.

We carry our past mistakes, regrets, and disappointments with us, and feelings of guilt arise
over the things we are impotent to change. Even joyful memories carry with them a sharp tinge
of nostalgia and sorrow, for what has past is forever lost, never to be again.

As Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the past is such a heavy weight on us precisely
because it forever remains out of our reach, immoveable and unchangeable.

“Willing liberates; but what is it called that puts even the liberator in fetters? / “It was”:
that is the will’s gnashing of teeth and loneliest sorrow. Powerless with respect to what
has been done—it is an angry spectator of all that is past. / Backwards the will is unable
to will; that it cannot break time and time’s desire—that is the will’s loneliest sorrow”
(Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

To escape from the weight of the past, many people direct their awareness towards the future,
in hopes of better things to come. However, the pessimists thought there were two major
problems with expecting too much from, and depending too heavily upon the future.

Firstly, by placing too much emphasis on the future one in a sense degrades the present
moment. In doing so, instead of figuring out how to gain some semblance of satisfaction in the
moment, one justifies their current misery by telling themselves they’ll be happy when the future
comes. As Blaise Pascal noted:

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“The future alone is our end. So we never live, but we hope to live; and as we are always
preparing to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.” (Blaise Pascal)
The second problem the pessimists saw with relying too heavily on the future stems from their
belief that although the world is ordered, it also contains a fundamental chaotic element, which
we are at the mercy of, and which can at any moment erupt into our life and either destroy or
drastically alter all our plans, dreams, and expectations.

“Pessimism”, wrote Nietzsche, “is the consequence of the absolute illogic of the
world-order.”

While we can influence, shape, and partially mold the future through our intentions and actions,
ultimately we are transcended by much larger forces which do not seem to care for our wishes.
An unforeseen sickness, tragedy, or betrayal at the hands of someone we trusted, can arise at
any moment, completely destroying our conception of what we thought the future would hold for
us.

Finally, if the burden which our awareness of the past and future places upon our shoulders
were not heavy enough, our awareness of time also grants us knowledge of our ever impending
death.

We all repress and deny such knowledge in a myriad of ways, but there arise lucid moments in
our life when the chilling realization that nothingness awaits us hits us with a sudden unrelenting
force. Miguel de Unamuno described his own particularly chilling and lucid confrontation with the
awareness of the fate which awaits us all:

“One night there lowered into my mind one of those dark, sad, and mournful dreams
which I cannot banish from my thoughts.. I dreamed that I was married, that I had a
child, that this child died, and that over its body…I said to my wife: “Behold our love!
Shortly it will decay: this is the way everything ends.”” (Miguel de Unamuno)

One may surmise that an antidote to the burdens which our awareness of time places upon our
existence is to live fully within and extract as much pleasure and joy as possible from the
present moment. Emil Cioran advocated this approach to life early in his writings.

“Suffer, then drink pleasure to its last dregs, cry or laugh, scream in despair or with joy,
sing about death or love, for nothing will endure” (On the Heights of Despair).

Cioran later discarded this ‘escape’ from the burdens of the awareness of time. For the present
moment is fleeting, always in flux, and even the most joyful and ecstatic of moments will soon
disappear into nothingness, leaving in their midst nothing but ever fading memories. Referring to
the mode of life in which one lives for the present moment alone, Schopenhauer wrote:

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“But you could just as well call this mode of life the greatest folly: for that which in a
moment ceases to exist, which vanishes as completely as a dream, cannot be worth any
serious effort.” (Schopenhauer)

“The perishability of all things existing in time”, as Schopenhauer put it, stimulates in one who
lives for the present moment a haunting recognition of the transitoriness and fragility of all
things, and a feeling of continual loss as the present moment continually vanishes forever into
the past.

It is no wonder that the ancients depicted Cronus, a personification of time, as devouring his
children. Time has a destructive effect on all living beings, but we as human beings alone are
burdened with a lucid awareness of it. It is this awareness, to reiterate, which is primarily
responsible for the suffering and misery which is so endemic to the human species, according to
the pessimists.

Given the inevitability of frustration, suffering and misery for human beings, Arthur
Schopenhauer condemned existence as a whole, thought we would have been better off had
we never come into being, and advocated a life of ascetic resignation in response to the harsh
realities of life.

We will suffer hardships great and small until we reach the grave, he surmised, but we can
minimize the frustration and pain we experience if we castrate all our desires, seek and expect
nothing, and build a fortress around our self to protect us from the demonic world:

“It is really the greatest absurdity to try to turn this scene of woe and lamentation into a
pleasure-resort. . . . Whoever takes a gloomy view regards this world as a kind of hell
and is accordingly concerned only with procuring for himself a small fireproof room; such
a man is much less mistaken” (Schopenhauer)

Although he often liked to deny it, Nietzsche was heavily influenced by Schopenhauer, and
agreed with his pessimistic view of human existence, writing: “…as deeply as man sees into life,
he also sees into suffering.”

However, he could not accept Schopenhauer’s conclusion that the best response to such a
pessimistic worldview was to live a life of resignation, a form of pessimism which he called a
‘pessimism of weakness’.

In fact, Nietzsche wondered why it was assumed the pessimist necessarily had to give into
feelings of depression and despair at all:

“Is pessimism necessarily a sign of decline, decay, degeneration, weary and weak
instincts?…Is there a pessimism of strength?” (Nietzsche)

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Nietzsche began to see that the popular belief that pessimism causes feelings of depression,
despair and hopelessness is a dangerously mistaken conviction. Instead, he proposed that in
reality the opposite is the case: the worldview one adopts is most often caused by the
underlying temperament of the individual.

One with the right attitude and temperament, Nietzsche surmised, could adhere to pessimism
yet not give in to feelings of hopelessness and resignation, feelings which most mistakenly think
the pessimist must necessarily give into.

Those who adhere to a pessimism of weakness, he maintained, are really at bottom weak and
impotent individuals, who cower from challenge, and thus utilize a pessimistic outlook to justify
their inaction and refusal to engage in the sort of struggles that are necessary to face up to the
burdens of life. These individuals naturally gravitate to a worldview which presents all action as
futile only because they are too weak to act in the face of life’s burdens and tragedies.

Interestingly, Nietzsche thought that optimism too could be a sign of an underlying weakness,
as the optimist is one who out of fear refuses to acknowledge or recognize the very real dark
and terrifying aspects of existence. This realization led Nietzsche to call optimism “morally
speaking, a sort of cowardice”.

In contrast to a pessimism of weakness, Nietzsche adhered to a pessimism of strength. A


pessimism of strength, like a pessimism of weakness, acknowledges that life is burdensome,
tragic, and realizes that struggle and suffering are intrinsic to the human condition and thus
cannot be eradicated. However, instead of using this worldview to justify inaction, impotence,
and resignation, one who adheres to a pessimism of strength tries to take joy in the tragedy that
is human life.

One who adheres to a pessimism of strength values development and growth above comfort
and satisfaction, and thus views suffering not as a curse, but as valuable material to be used in
the transfiguration of one’s self into something continually wiser and stronger.

The pessimist of strength realizes with the German poet Friedrich Holderlin that “He who steps
upon his misery stands higher.” By valuing growth above comfort, the pessimist of strength does
not cower from hardships and struggles, but instead revels and takes joy in them, and even,
dare we say, comes to love them.

“The trust in life is gone:”, Nietzsche wrote, “life itself has become a problem. Yet one
should not jump to the conclusion that this necessarily makes one gloomy. Even love of
life is still possible, only one loves differently” (The Gay Science)

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NIETZSCHE AND ZAPFFE: BEAUTY, SUFFERING, AND THE
NATURE OF GENIUS

Many thinkers have proposed that human beings require emotional stimulants and
psychological aids to mitigate the hardships and burdens associated with existence, and to
provide an energizing conviction that life has worth. Without such mechanisms, one is prone to
slip into the sort of world-weariness expounded in the “wisdom of Silenus”.

“Oh, miserable ephemeral race, children of chance and suffering, why do you compel me
to say to you what would be most beneficial for you not to hear? What is best of all is
utterly unreachable: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you
is – to die soon.”

In this video we will examine the question as to why psychological mechanisms are needed to
cope with existence, and discuss what some of these mechanisms are. In the latter part of the
video we examine some of the consequences that arise in cases when these mechanisms fail,
paying particular attention to how this relates to the creative genius.

It is often suggested, that it is not so much existence in and of itself that is difficult to bear, not
merely that we are “children of chance and suffering”, but the fact that we are conscious of our
troubled lot:

“Apart from the fact there is no normal standard of health, nobody has proved that man
is necessarily cheerful by nature. And further, man, by the very fact of being man, of
possessing consciousness, is, in comparison with the [donkey] or the crab, a diseased
animal. Consciousness is a disease.” (Tragic Sense of Life, Miguel de Unamuno)

The suggestion that consciousness creates the existential crisis that the majority of people
spend their life fleeing from is a common theme among a number of thinkers. In his essay “The
Last Messiah”, the philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe put forth a harrowing condemnation of
consciousness as the culprit which has imposed an excessive burden on the human race.

“Whatever happened? A breach in the very unity of life, a biological paradox, an


abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature. Life had overshot its
target, blowing itself apart. A species had been armed too heavily – by spirit made
almighty without, but equally a menace to its own well-being…

So there he stands with his visions, betrayed by the universe, in wonder and fear. The beast
knew fear as well, in thunderstorms and on the lion’s claw. But man became fearful of life itself –
indeed, of his very being” (Zapffe)

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Some may question whether the “terrible truths” of human existence are really that terrible, or
whether those who preach the tragic sense of life are merely sensitive souls prone to
exaggerated claims. For if these terrible truths were really that tragic, wouldn’t more people
believe in the validity of Silenus’ “wisdom”, or at the very least act upon the guidance of Emile
Cioran and “retreat to a faraway corner of the world” in the realization that there is nothing to be
gained in this life?

If we really are but the “children of chance and suffering” of Silenus, why, in the words of Zapffe:

“…has mankind not long ago gone extinct during great epidemics of madness? Why do
only a fairly minor number of individuals perish because they fail to endure the strain of
living?” (Zapffe)

Zapffe thought he had found the answer:

“Cultural history, as well as observation of ourselves and others, allow the following
answer: Most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the content of
consciousness.” (Zapffe)

Zapffe identified three psychological, or more specifically repressional mechanisms by which


individuals artificially limit the content of consciousness, and protect themselves from the
despair that can ensue from becoming too conscious of the tragic sense of life: isolation,
anchoring, and distraction.

Zapffe defined isolation as a “fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and
destructive thought and feeling”. Semi-consciously or unconsciously, individuals avoid thinking
about the terrible truths of human existence, utilizing various strategies to ensure tragic insights
into human existence are kept as far away from awareness as possible.

Zapffe called anchoring, which is a “fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the
liquid fray of consciousness”, “the happiest…protection against the cosmos that we ever get to
know in life…” The earliest and primary anchoring point is the home and neighborhood one
grows up in. As this primary anchoring point loses its efficacy over time, individuals grasp onto
other anchors available to them in their personal and social life – such as one’s vocation, a
political party or a religious creed. Such anchorings provide a sense of safety, familiarity, and
meaning, protecting one from moods of existential disorientation and feelings of cosmic
insignificance.

In distraction, a “very popular mode of protection”, “One limits attention to the critical bounds by
constantly enthralling it with impression.” A quick glance at our culture of instant gratification,
whereby individuals have constant access to, and constantly seek out, mindless stimuli and
entertainment, confirms Zapffe’s observation that distraction is a popular means used by human
beings to minimize their awareness of the tragic nature of life.

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Most of the time, these mechanisms successfully fulfill their purpose of limiting the content of
consciousness. The majority of people largely go through life without succumbing to extreme
states of world-weariness, and with the conviction that although life is difficult, it has its victories
and is ultimately worth the effort.

But what happens when these mechanisms fail? What happens when an individual becomes
increasingly aware of the tragic sense of life? Is such an individual fated to live in a constant
state of despair? If one looks deeply into life, is one also fated to suffer deeply?

Along with the three repressional mechanisms outlined by Zapffe, he also posited the existence
of a fourth remedy against the pain of existence – that being sublimation. Sublimation differs in
kind from the other three remedies in that it “is a matter of transformation rather than
repression.” Via sublimation, the individual harnesses the large amounts of energy associated
with being overcome by the “pain of living”, and utilizes such energy to fashion creative works of
beauty.

“Through stylistic or artistic gifts can the very pain of living at times be converted into
valuable experiences. Positive impulses engage the evil and put it to their own ends,
fastening onto its pictorial, dramatic, heroic, lyric or even comic aspects.” (Zapffe).

Zapffe’s mechanism of sublimation, which he called the “rarest of protective means”, is similar to
Nietzsche’s advice for those “higher humans” whose disposition renders them unable to utilize
the repressional mechanisms which protect the masses from world-weariness. For such higher
humans, who “distinguish themselves from the lower by seeing and hearing, and thoughtfully
seeing and hearing, immeasurably more” (GS), Nietzsche recommends using art as a means of
revitalization from the suffering that results from looking deeply into life:

“The truly serious task of art…[is] to save the eye from gazing into the horrors of night
and to deliver the subject by the healing balm of illusion from the spasms of the
agitations of the will” (The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche).

Nietzsche considered art as such a highly effective antidote to tragic insight and the “spasms
and agitations of the will” because it induces what he called “Rausch”, a German word
translated as rush or intoxication. For one to create any work of beauty, or truly appreciate
beauty in art or nature, one must first enter into a state of Rausch:

“For there to be art, for there to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological
precondition is indispensable: Rausch. Rausch must first have enhanced the excitability
of the whole machine: else there is no art.” (Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche)

Rausch is a rare and unique state, categorized by Nietzsche as one of the more powerful of
experiences possible for human beings. When an aesthetic phenomena stimulates such a state,

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the individual is vaulted into a higher mode of being, one characterized by power, strength, and
an intoxication which mirrors the excitement of sensuality:

“Art reminds us of states of animal vigor; it is on the one hand an excess and overflow of
blooming physicality into the world of images and desires; on the other, an excitation of
the animal function through the images and desires of intensified life; — an
enhancement of the feeling of life, a stimulant to it.” (The Will to Power, Nietzsche)

It is because beauty stimulates states of Rausch, “the feeling of increased strength and
fullness”, that Nietzsche heralded art as “the great stimulus to life” for those higher humans
whose tragic insight is keen and sensitive.

But what is interesting is the degree to which tragic insight into the nature of life is needed in
order to stimulate states of Rausch. Could it be that the more aware one is of the terrible truths,
the more one will experience the rapturous and ecstatic state of Rausch?

A look into the nature of genius will offer insight into this question. It has long been known that
many geniuses throughout history, whose creative powers seem to dwell high above mere
mortals, have struggled with pathological states. Seneca stated that “no genius has existed
without a touch of madness’, and Aristotle claimed “Those who have become eminent in
philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia.”. More
recently Dean Keith Simonton, in his book Origins of Genius, summarized numerous studies
which have established empirically a connection between psychopathological states and
creativity.

Perhaps at least some of the pathological states common among geniuses is stimulated by their
inability to use the repressional mechanisms outlined by Zapffe, resulting in a hyper-awareness
of the “horrors of the night”. This would explain why the lives of many geniuses were constituted
by periods of severe melancholy, suffering, and inactivity followed by rapturous and productive
states of creativity and ectasy, i.e, Rausch.

Without access to the repressional mechanisms that keep most individuals on a relative even
psychic keel day in and day out, the only way such individuals could persevere in life after
spending so much time staring into the abyss, is to break free from their despair in an almost
super-human state of joy and power.

Nietzsche, one such genius, spent much of his life in extreme states of suffering, writing “I am
more a battlefield than a man.” He suffered physically due to his weak disposition and extreme
migraines, as well as emotionally due to his self-imposed solitude, and psychologically due to
his complete lack of recognition among his peers. And above all else he suffered from spending
so much time “gazing into the horrors of night”; yet he also reached peaks unknown to all but a
select few.

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“The intensities of my feeling make me shudder and laugh; several times I could not
leave the room for the ridiculous reason that my eyes were inflamed – from what? Each
time, I had wept too much on my previous day’s walk, not sentimental tears but tears of
joy; I sang and talked nonsense, filled with a glimpse of things which put me in advance
of all other men.” (Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche)

If confronting the tragedy of life opens one up to experiencing states of Rausch, maybe the
majority of individuals, by utilizing repressional mechanisms to protect themselves from tragic
insights, also confine themselves to a narrow range of experience, whereby the rapturous state
of Rausch, the great stimulus to life, is rarely, if ever, experienced. By protecting one’s self from
the terrible truths of human existence, one may also be protecting one’s self from experiencing
life more fully, deeply, and joyfully. In the words of de Unamuno:

“And the supreme beauty is that of tragedy. The consciousness that everything passes
away, that we ourselves pass away, and that everything that is ours and everything that
environs us passes away, fills us with anguish, and this anguish itself reveals to us the
consolation of that which does not pass away, of the eternal, of the beautiful.” (Tragic
Sense of Life, Miguel de Unamuno)

NIETZSCHE AND MORALITY: THE HIGHER MAN AND THE


HERD

In the Preface to his classic work On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche wrote:

“What if a regressive trait lurked in “the good man,” likewise a danger, an enticement, a
poison, a narcotic, so that the present lived at the expense of the future? Perhaps in
more comfort and less danger, but also in a smaller-minded, meaner manner? … So that
morality itself were to blame if man never attained the highest power and splendor
possible for the type man? So that morality itself was the danger of dangers?” (On the
Genealogy of Morality)

Most people do not question why things are considered morally good or evil, rather uncritically,
and largely unconsciously, they adopt the “value judgments of good and evil” dominant within
their society.

For the past 2000 years, the dominant morality in the West, according to Nietzsche, has been
an “anti-natural” morality, which, in his words, turns “against the instincts of life”. Nietzsche
foresaw this morality as reigning over the Western world for foreseeable future, and was to him
“the danger of dangers” – a morality in which all individuals, even those with the potential to rise
above the mediocre mass, are pressured into becoming

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“a smaller, almost ridiculous type, a herd animal, something eager to please, sickly, and
mediocre.” (Beyond Good and Evil)

Why has an “anti-natural” morality – a “poison” which has spread “through the entire body of
mankind” (On the Genealogy of Morality) – gained dominion over Western civilization? To
answer this question Nietzsche’s categorization of individuals into two distinct types: the higher
human beings, and those who belong to the herd, must be examined.

Within the category of the higher human beings, there are two main types. There are creative
geniuses, “the men of great creativity, the really great men according to my understanding” (The
Will to Power), who, through a rare combination of nature and nurture, are able to devote their
life to a craft and bestow upon the world astounding works of beauty.

Along with creative geniuses, there are the more numerous higher humans who do not scale the
heights of genius, and thus hidden from the public eye, their lives are “without songs and
singers” (The Dawn). Yet the life of this more common higher man is not qualitatively different
from the life of the creative genius; both share similar character traits which separate them from
the herd.

Higher humans have a unifying life project, and are consumed by the drive to actualize their
lofty goals. This unifying project is not undertaken for short-term gratification, but as a result of
the higher man’s vast historical perspective, is a form of work performed under the eye of
centuries – a goal whose effects will remain long after the physical death of the higher man.

As Nietzsche wrote in Human All Too Human:

“[The modern] individual focuses too narrowly on his own short lifespan… and wants to
pluck the fruit himself from the tree he plants, and so no longer likes to plant those trees
that demand a century of constant tending and are intended to provide shade for long
successions of generations.” (Human All Too Human)

For this type of lofty work the higher man requires his solitude and freedom from the herd – the
“innumerable…small and pitiable men” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). As Nietzsche wrote:

“The concept of greatness entails being noble, wanting to be by oneself, being able to be
different, standing alone and having to live independently.” (Beyond Good and Evil)

Standing alone and living independently, the higher man remains oblivious to the petty concerns
which occupy the herd, and thus is immune to both the praise and criticism emanating from the
mouths of the many.

“There is a solitude within him that is inaccessible to praise or blame, his own justice that
is beyond appeal” (The Will to Power)

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Aware of the momentous task which lies before him, and the potential for greatness which lies
within him, the higher man feels a sense of reverence towards himself; and even in the
presence of great suffering, affirms life as a “proud and well-turned out human being who says
Yes, who is sure of the future, who guarantees the future.” (Ecce Homo)

In contrast to these higher humans, there exist the many – the herd. The herd is composed of
two types: the last man, and the slave.

The last man is the quintessential mediocre man. Striving solely for comfort and contentment,
an end which makes him lazy and contemptible, the last man is wholly devoid of any creative
urge within, and blind to higher values which render creativity possible.

The slave, in contrast, is a weak and sickly human being, who suffers from himself and is filled
with what Nietzsche called ressentiment – a festering hatred of life generated by feelings of
impotence in the face of an external reality he feels to be overpowering and threatening.

“There is among men as in every other animal species an excess of failures, of the sick,
degenerating, infirm, who suffer necessarily; the successful cases are, among men, too,
always the exception” (Beyond Good and Evil)

The presence of ressentiment conjures feelings of envy within the slave towards all those who
do not suffer as they do – namely, the higher human beings. This envy motivates the slave to
take vengeance on the higher humans. Banding together to obtain a “communal feeling of
power” – the only type of power available to the slave – and under the pretext of calls for
equality, the slave attempts to bring down to a more mediocre level all those higher than him
through the construction of a slave, or herd, morality.

“The morality that would un-self man is the morality of decline par excellence—the fact,
“I am declining,” transposed into the imperative, “all of you ought to decline”…This only
morality that has been taught so far, that of un-selfing, reveals a will to the end;
fundamentally, it negates life.” (Ecce Homo)

A herd morality inverts the natural values of life. The individual who is strong and independent –
who attains feelings of power spontaneously through their creative endeavors and “great health”
– is deemed by herd morality to be “evil”. On the other hand, all those who belong to the herd:
the mediocre last men, and the weak and impotent slaves – the “vengeful disguised as judges”
(OGM) – are deemed to be “good”.

As Nietzsche put it in Ecce Homo:

‘Finally—this is what is most terrible of all—the concept of the good man signifies that
one sides with all that is weak, sick, failure, suffering of itself…the principle of selection is
crossed—an ideal is fabricated from the contradiction against the proud and

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well-turned-out human being who says Yes, who is sure of the future, who guarantees
the future—and he is now called evil.— And all this was believed, as morality!” (Ecce
Homo)
Herd morality is the “danger of dangers” because of its ability to seduce those anxious and
fearful in the face of the uncertainty and isolation associated with striving for greatness. In the
confusion and distress of their development, longing to “rest from themselves for once…so as to
be free from what oppresses them” (The Will to Power), herd morality acts as a Siren’s voice
which offers the potential higher man a way to escape from his burdensome fate, into the
comfort of mediocrity and immersion in the mass.

If herd morality becomes too effective in bringing down all that is higher and extraordinary –
nihilism will creep over the world. Without the higher values embodied by the higher men,
creativity, works of astounding beauty, and the capacity to strive for ideals, will be absent.
Instead the values of comfort and contentment so, cherished by the herd, will be worshipped as
the supreme values, and as a result the herd will engulf all of mankind and “existence [will] be
deprived of its great character” (Ecce Homo).

Nietzsche’s fears of such a world were expounded in a passage from On the Genealogy of
Morality:

“We can see nothing today that wants to grow greater, we suspect that things will
continue to go down, down, to become thinner, more good-natured, more prudent, more
comfortable, more mediocre, more indifferent… Here precisely is what has become a
fatality…together with the fear of man we have also lost our love of him, our reverence
for him, our hopes for him, even the will to him. The sight of man now makes us
weary—what is nihilism today if it is not that?—We are weary of man.” (On the
Genealogy of Morality)

In the attempt to prevent future generations from succumbing to this all engulfing levelling effect,
Nietzsche spent much time in his writings performing a “revaluation of values”, hoping to lessen
the effect of herd morality on the development of higher men.

Such a revaluation of values is dependent upon the realization that herd morality is not an
objective and universal morality binding on all, but is merely

“one type of human morality beside which, before which, and after which many other
types, above all higher moralities, are, or ought to be possible.”(Beyond Good and Evil)

While herd morality “says stubbornly…’I am morality itself, and nothing besides is
morality’”(Beyond Good and Evil), the higher individual must realize that “The ideas of the herd
should rule in the herd – but not reach out beyond it” (The Will to Power). He must pay no
attention to herd morality’s claims of universality, its values and moral “oughts”, but instead must
discover his own higher values to assist him in accomplishing his unifying life-project.

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In discovering his own higher values, the higher man must realize that as a highly differentiated
individual with a unique vision of life, his good is his alone, and therefore he must not preach or
impose his higher morality on others. As Zarathustra advised:

“My brother, if you have a virtue and she is your virtue, then you have her in common
with nobody.” Even naming one’s virtue would make her too common; if one must speak
of her, it should be: “This is my good; this I love; it pleases me wholly; thus alone do I will
the good. I do not will it the law of a god; I do not will it as human statute and need”.
(Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

In Nietzsche’s time, as in ours, there exist a plethora of individuals who desire to persecute and
bring down those who rise above the mediocre mass, masking their envy with calls for equality.
These ideas will therefore seem elitist and distasteful to the great majority of people. But for
Nietzsche, these ideas were not meant for the many:

“Our highest insights must – and should – sound like follies and sometimes like crimes
when they are heard without permission by those who are not predisposed and
predestined for them”(Beyond Good and Evil)

Nietzsche was gravely concerned with ensuring the world would remain fertile for the growth of
true human excellence. Thus he wrote for the higher man alone; urging him to overcome the
temptations of herd morality and instead to proceed on his own heroic life-path, and in doing so
provide inspiration for future generations of potential higher men.

But Nietzsche was not optimistic that the future would be kind to the existence of higher
humans. Herd morality is a powerful beast with the force of the majority behind it, and for the
last two millennia has waged

“a common war on all that is rare, strange, privileged, the higher man, the higher soul,
the higher duty, the higher responsibility, and the abundance of creative power and
masterfulness.”(Beyond Good and Evil)

Herd morality underpins not only socialist ideologies, the proponents of which Nietzsche called
“socialist dolts and flatheads”(Beyond Good and Evil) who wish to bring about the “degeneration
and diminution of man into the perfect herd animal”(Beyond Good and Evil), but also the
numerous social justice movements which threaten to engulf the Western world with a new
wave of herd morality.

Given that herd morality is alive and well in the modern day, we can, with Nietzsche, pose a
question he believed highly pertinent in his times, and which remains so in ours:

“Today – is greatness possible?”(Beyond Good and Evil)

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But apart from the question as to whether true greatness is possible today, the fact that herd
morality is alive and well must be a cause of concern from another angle. For the slave, despite
the innocent facade he displays with his herd morality and calls for equality, does not desire to
change the world for the better. Instead, driven by ressentiment and envy, he seeks to gain
social and political power for the purpose of provoking destruction as compensation for his own
personal impotencies and failures.

The following insight of Nietzsche’s proves to be a pertinent warning for the modern world:

“When some men fail to accomplish what they desire to do they exclaim angrily, “May
the whole world perish!” This repulsive emotion is the pinnacle of envy, whose
implication is “If I cannot have something, no one can have anything, no one is to be
anything!” (The Dawn)

NIETZSCHE AND PSYCHOLOGY: HOW TO BECOME WHO


YOU ARE

In 1888, a few months before the end of his most prolific, and final period of writing, Friedrich
Nietzsche wrote in Ecce Homo:

“That a psychologist without equal speaks from my writings – this is perhaps the first
insight gained by a good reader.” (Ecce Homo)

Nietzsche viewed himself as the first psychologist amongst the great philosophers, writing:

“Who among the philosophers before me was in any way a psychologist? Before me
there simply was no psychology” (Ecce Homo)

Given that Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Alfred Adler, three giants of 20th century psychology,
were all heavily influenced by Nietzsche’s psychological insights, his grandiose self-assessment
seems to have contained at least a kernel of truth.

Nietzsche’s psychological investigations were not conducted for the sake of disinterested
theoretical speculation; as in his eyes, knowledge should always be sought first and foremost
for the purpose of energizing life. In his essay On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, he
quoted Goethe:

“I hate everything that merely instructs me without augmenting or directly invigorating my


activities.” (Goethe)

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Nietzsche undertook his psychological ventures for the sake of discovering how to fulfill the
maxim which formed the subtitle of his autobiography Ecce Homo – “How One Becomes What
One Is”. In the Gay Science, Nietzsche echoed this idea:

“What does your conscience say? – ‘You shall become the person you are’.” (The Gay
Science)

In this video we will shed light on what it means to “become who you are” and in the process
explore some of Nietzsche’s fascinating psychological insights.

Countless philosophers have attempted to understand the human mind, discern its tendencies,
biases, potentials, nature, and origin. But Nietzsche claimed that all those before him were
blinded in their psychological ventures by an unquestioned acceptance of not only the socially
prevailing beliefs and moral standards, but more significantly, by a fear of exploring the depths
within themselves. In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche explained:

“All psychology so far has got hung up on moral prejudices and fears: it has not dared to
descend into the depths.” (Beyond Good and Evil)

Nietzsche conceived the psyche as constituted by multidimensional layers and possessing a


complexity which renders total and complete knowledge of it an impossibility. Heraclitus, the
Presocratic Greek philosopher whose aphorisms exerted a heavy influence on the development
of Nietzsche’s ideas, captured the complex quality of the psyche:

“If you went in search of it, you would not find the boundaries of the soul [psyche],
though you traveled every road – so deep is its measure [logos].” (Heraclitus)

Nietzsche similarly wrote:

“How can the human being know itself? It is a thing dark and veiled; and if the hare has
seven skins, the human can slough off seventy times seven and still not be able to say,
‘Now that is what you really are, that is no longer outer shell.’” (Untimely Meditations III)

Most individuals, fearing the complex depths within, remain at the superficial and surface layer
of their psyche, “industriously mindful of their common comedy and not at all of themselves.”
(Untimely Meditations III) Not one to follow the crowd, Nietzsche took an opposing approach:

“I undertook something that not everyone may undertake: I descended into the depths, I
bored into the foundations.”(Dawn of Morning)

A fear of descending into the depths of one’s psyche is not unfounded, which is why it is
“something that not everyone may undertake”. For those who lack sufficient courage and are
ungifted in psychological investigations, a voluntary descent into the inner foundations of one’s

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mind could engender temporary, or in rare cases, permanent, madness. Writing of the dangers
which confront the “adventurer and circumnavigator of that inner world called ‘human being’”,
Nietzsche wrote:

“He enters a labyrinth, and multiplies a thousandfold the dangers that life in itself brings
with it – of which not the least is that nobody can see how and where he loses his way,
becomes solitary, and is torn to pieces by some cave-minotaur of conscience.”(Beyond
Good and Evil)

While exploring the depths within may be a foolish danger for the many, it is a necessary
endeavor for the few. The psyche of a small minority of individuals, in comparison with that of
the overwhelming mass, is constituted by both greater depths and a higher degree of turmoil. To
ensure they are not torn asunder by the contradictions, conflicts, and abysses within, such
individuals are driven inward to explore and impose order on their psyche – fashioning and
sculpting themselves into a “harmonious totality”.

Nietzsche presented Goethe as the exemplary individual who was able to impose form on his
inner chaos. Describing Goethe, Nietzsche wrote:

“What he wanted was totality…he disciplined himself to wholeness, he created himself.”


(Twilight of the Idols)

To create oneself does not mean to form oneself out of nothing. As humans, we cannot, as
some falsely claim, be fashioned in any way we please. Each of us, according to Nietzsche, has
a deep and abiding nature which places definite set limits on who and what we can become.

“At the bottom of us, really “deep down,” there is, of course, something unteachable,
some granite of spiritual fatum [personal fate or destiny], of predetermined decision and
answer to predetermined selected questions. Whenever a cardinal problem is at stake,
there speaks an unchangeable “this is I.” (Beyond Good and Evil)

Our nature is sculpted not only by early personal life experiences and the traits and dispositions
inherited from our ancestors, but also, according to Nietzsche, by historical forces. The
traditions and “experiments” of past cultures continue to live on within us, influencing our life and
experience from the deeper layers of our psyche.

“The past of every form and way of life, of cultures that formerly lay right next to or on top
of each other, now…flows into us “modern souls”; our drives now run back everywhere;
we ourselves are a kind of chaos.” (Beyond Good and Evil)

Given that the “the past of every form and way of life” continues to live on in us, Nietzsche
proposed we need to engage in an active exploration of history, if we are to attain
self-knowledge.

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“Direct self observation is not nearly sufficient for us to know ourselves: we need history,
for the past flows on within us in a hundred waves.”(Human All Too Human)

Just as the past continues to live on in modern cultures, embodied in myths, traditions, and
institutions, so too our psyche has been shaped and sculpted by past ages.

The tendency of the modern individual to feel he has been arbitrarily thrown and abandoned into
an absurd world is the direct result of lacking what Nietzsche called a “historical sense” – of
having no conscious connection to the past, and therefore failing to dig one’s roots through the
strata of history.

In an early essay titled On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, Nietzsche contrasted “the
condition of a people which has lost faith in its ancient history and has fallen into a
restless…and a constant search for novelty after novelty”, with the individual who has cultivated
a “historical sense”, and attained “the sense of well being of a tree for its roots, the happiness to
know oneself in a manner not entirely arbitrary and accidental, but as someone who has grown
out of a past, as an heir, flower, and fruit.”

But it is not only the cultures of past millennia which continue to live on within us. For in the
deeper layers of our psyche exist prehistorical drives and impulses. Just as our body contains
relics of earlier developmental stages, stretching back even to the reptilian age, so too our
psyche contains within its depths primitive drives which stretch back into the prehistory of
humanity and animality.

Every human being, no matter how civilized and developed on the surface, is still an animal and
archaic man within the depths of his being.

“I have discovered for myself that ancient humanity and animality, indeed the entire
primal age and past of all sentient being continues in me to create, to love, to hate, to
infer.” (The Gay Science)

In these uncivilized layers reside what Zarathustra called “the beast within” – potentially
destructive inclinations which can overtake and possess the human being, such as the drive to
aggression and unbridled sexual lust.

Instead of advocating for the repression of the beast within, Nietzsche recommended we
explore and become familiar with these potentially destructive vestiges of the ancient past. Just
as a raging river can be harnessed for its energy, so too the uncivilized layers of the psyche, if
channeled and handled properly, can vitalize life.

“[The] most shortsighted and pernicious way of thinking wants to make the great sources
of energy, those wild torrents of the soul that often stream forth so dangerously and

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overwhelmingly, dry up altogether, instead of taking their power into service and
economizing it.” (Nietzsche)

But it is not only destructive drives and impulses which reside in the prehistoric layers of our
psyche; there also exists what Nietzsche called the “divine animal” – ancient instincts,
“regulating, unconscious and infallible drives” (On the Genealogy of Morality), which enabled
our ancestors to survive and even flourish in harsh and uncertain environments prior to the
emergence of the modern form of consciousness.

The modern individual has all but lost touch with these ancient instincts. Relying solely on his
consciousness, his “weakest and most fallible organ”, he stumbles blindly through life, oblivious
that in the recesses of his mind are archaic helpers, which, if he knew how to harness them,
could assist him in the many situations in life where consciousness fails.

Speaking of the modern individual, Nietzsche wrote:

“He has lost and destroyed his instinct, and can no longer trust the “divine animal” and
let go the reins when his understanding falters and his way leads through deserts.”
(Untimely Meditations II)

The presence of historical, prehistorical, and animal drives has contributed to the existence of
an “abundance of contrary drives and impulses” within us – “we ourselves are a kind of chaos”,
as Nietzsche put it. In contrast to other philosophers who have posited the human mind to be
above all something unitary, Nietzsche radically proclaimed it to be a multiplicity, an aggregation
of intertwined psychological entities.

“The most general picture of our essence is an association of drives, with constant rivalry
and particular alliances with each other.” (The Will to Power)

Conceptualizing the human psyche “as social structure of the drives and affects” – as a sort of
city, in which numerous conflicting sub-personalities simultaneously live – the task Nietzsche set
for himself, and his readers, was to harmonize the “abundance of contrary drives and impulses”,
and provide coordination to the plethora of competing forces within.

He proposed that such coordination can be attained via the agency of an “organizing idea”, or
“ruling passion” – a dominant “master” drive that forms the “living centre” of the psyche, and
co-opts all the other drives to act in subordination to its end. The organizing idea is not found
through an act of will, but, possessing a type of intelligence of its own, reveals itself throughout
the course of one’s life. One merely has to remain on the lookout for such a master drive, and
not hinder its growth and activity.

“[T]he organizing “idea” that is destined to rule keeps growing deep down — it begins to
command; slowly it leads us back from side roads and wrong roads; it prepares single

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qualities and fitnesses that will one day prove to be indispensable as means toward a
whole — one by one, it trains all subservient capacities before giving any hint of the
dominant task, “goal,” “aim,” or “meaning.”” (Ecce Homo)

The organizing idea, in other words, arranges the plethora of competing forces in one’s psyche
in a manner that allows one to strive with single minded devotion towards a heroic goal which
gives meaning to life.

Nietzsche summarized the importance of the organizing idea in giving form to one’s psyche in
the following unpublished note:

“It is a myth to believe that we will find our authentic self after we have left behind or
forgotten one thing or another…To make ourselves, to shape a form from various
elements – that is the task! The task of a sculptor! Of a productive human being!”
(Nietzsche).
Nietzsche’s psychological insights are wide, varied, and always penetrating – a result of his
ardent conviction that the psyche of modern man was in dire need of being dissected.

But despite his piercing observations, there are critics who claim his insights into the nature of
the human mind are irrelevant because of the fact that at the young age of 44 he fell victim to a
mental illness which remained with him until the end of his relatively short life. Ignoring the fact
that his illness may have been of an organic origin, there are some who may ask: Why should
anyone pay attention to ideas on how to “become who you are” from a man who went mad?

To respond to this question, we’ll conclude with an eery passage from Nietzsche’s unpublished
notes, in which he seems to foreshadow the fate which would befall him later in life.

“There is a false saying: “How can someone who can’t save himself save others?”
Supposing I have the key to your chains, why should your lock and my lock be the
same?” (Nietzsche, KSA 10:4[4])

NIETZSCHE AND DIONYSUS: TRAGEDY AND THE


AFFIRMATION OF LIFE

In his book Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche wrote:

“Herewith I again stand on the soil out of which my intention, my ability grows – I, the last
disciple of the philosopher Dionysus.” (Twilight of the Idols)

For the entirety of his writing career Nietzsche was heavily influenced by the ancient Greek god
Dionysus – the “god of many forms” and inexpressible depths.

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Describing the multifaceted nature of Dionysus, Walter Otto wrote:

“All of antiquity extolled Dionysus as the god who gave man wine. However, he was
known also as the raving god whose presence makes man mad and incites him to
savagery and even to lust for blood. He was the confidant and companion of the spirits
of the dead…The flowers of spring bore witness to him, too. The ivy, the pine, the fig tree
were dear to him. Yet far above all of these blessings in the natural world of vegetation
stood the gift of the vine…Dionysus was the god of the most blessed ecstasy and the
most enraptured love. But he was also the persecuted god, the suffering and dying god,
and all whom he loved, all who attended him, had to share his tragic fate.” (Walter Otto,
Dionysus: Myth and Cult)

The many myths and cults which surrounded Dionysus exerted a great influence on Ancient
Greek society, and in them Nietzsche perceived something he sensed as lacking in the modern
world – a celebration of what he called a “tragic disposition”. Nietzsche stressed the importance
of living with a tragic awareness of life, and asserted that only through the cultivation of such a
state could genuine growth, creativity, greatness, and the capacity to truly affirm life, be
attained.

“There is only one hope and one guarantee for the future of that which is human; it lies in
this, that the tragic disposition shall not perish.” (Nietzsche)

Drawing from Walter Otto’s astounding book, Dionysus: Myth and Cult, as well as from
Nietzsche’s philosophical corpus, in this video we will investigate the nature of Dionysus through
the various myths and cults which surrounded this god of the ancient world. In the process, we’ll
decipher why Nietzsche was consistently enraptured with the figure of Dionysus, and illuminate
his ideas on the nature of tragedy and its connection to human greatness and the affirmation of
life.

“An intoxicated god”, Walter Otto wrote of Dionysus, “a mad god! Truly an idea which
demands our deepest thought.” (Walter Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult)

In contemplating the meaning and significance of Dionysus, the most appropriate place to start
is the myth of his birth. Dionysus was conceived by a mortal woman, Semele, and an immortal
god, Zeus. While still in the womb of his mother she was destroyed by a torrent of lightning
borne from Zeus. In danger of perishing with his mother, Zeus took the unborn Dionysus from
the flames which engulfed his mother, and sewed Dionysus onto his thigh; caring for him until
he was developed and healthy enough to set forth in the world.

A child of both the mortal and divine realm, born first from a mortal woman and then an immortal
god, Dionysus was referred to in the ancient world as “the twice-born one”; a god of dual nature

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and paradox, whose essence from the very start differentiated him from other gods as
especially enigmatic.

The suffering and death which characterized the myth of the birth of Dionysus prefigured not
only his fate, bestowing upon him the epithet the “suffering and dying god”, but the fate of all
those who cared for or took an interest in him. Tragedy or madness befell them all. His mother’s
sister, Ino, for example, who took it upon herself to care for the newborn, and motherless,
Dionysus, died in a fit of madness by plunging herself into the sea with her own infant son in her
arms.

In all the myths, whenever Dionysus appears, he comes violently and in an alarming manner.
His presence awakens a sense of urgency, ecstasy, and terror in the hearts of all within his
vicinity. The urgency his presence evokes is due to the inexpressible and agonizing secretive
nature of his being, of the fact that he symbolizes “the eternal enigmas of duality and
paradox”(Walter Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult). For what can one do when Dionysus arrives,
and one is confronted with a stark awareness of the perplexing nature of reality, but fall back in
euphoria or else lose touch in a transitory insanity.

“The final secrets of existence and non-existence transfix mankind with monstrous
eyes…This spirit of duality which distinguishes Dionysus…is the source of the
fascination and the confusion which everything that is Dionysiac evokes, for it is the spirit
of a wild being. His coming brings madness.” (Walter Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult)

The madness which his arrival inspires can be fathomed most clearly in the myths of the
nymphs and maenads; groups of women who cared for and nurtured the young Dionysus, and
who, when he matured into an adult, were possessed by his wild spirit and driven into the
mountains, where they nursed the young of wild animals, or else tore them to pieces and
devoured their raw flesh.

“The god who sends the mind reeling, the god who appears to mankind in the most
urgent immediacy is welcomed and feted by the women in an absolute ecstasy and
excess of rapture. They respond to his coming with the behavior of the insane. The myth
tells again and again how his fury ripped them loose from their peaceful domesticity,
from the humdrum orderly activities of their daily lives for the purpose of making them
into dancers in the wilderness and the loneliness of the mountains, where they find him
and rage through the night as members of his revel rout.” (Walter Otto, Dionysus: Myth
and Cult)

The madness of the maenads was not only depicted in bloodthirsty pandemonium, where they
devoured the raw flesh of wild animals, and in some myths, the flesh of their own children, but
also in paralysis and deathly silence.

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“Madness dwells in the surge of clanging, shrieking, and pealing sounds; it dwells also in
silence. The women who follow Dionysus get their name, maenads, from this madness.
Possessed by it, they rush off, whirl madly in circles, or stand still, as if turned into
stone.” (Walter Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult)

The madness of the maenads is derived from the madness of Dionysus. “The bloodthirstiness of
the maenads is the bloodthirstiness of the god himself.”(Walter Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult)
As a child, according to the 2nd century Greco Roman poet Oppian, Dionysus delighted in
tearing kids into pieces and bringing them back to life again. He was called, among many other
names, “the raging one”, “the mad one”, and “the eater of raw flesh”.

But to focus too heavily on the bloodthirsty madness of Dionysus and his maenads would be to
distort his image. For the madness which inheres in his being and which overtakes all those he
comes in contact with, is a double sided madness – capable of the most appalling and dreadful
acts, but also of the most fertile, life-enhancing, and creative. The madness which afflicts
Dionysus and all those who follow him, is a divine madness.

“The madness which is called Dionysus is no sickness, no debility in life, but a


companion of life at its healthiest. It is the tumult which erupts from its innermost
recesses when they mature and force their way to the surface. It is the madness inherent
in the womb of the mother. This attends all moments of creation, constantly changes
ordered existence into chaos, and ushers in primal salvation and primal pain—and in
both, the primal wildness of being.” (Walter Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult)

When life begins to stagnate and decay, when one finds oneself in chains, self-imposed or
otherwise, when society becomes increasingly repressive and antithetical to the individual’s
ability to flourish, Dionysus arrives to break the chains, refresh and replenish the life that was in
danger of dying. In the Bacchae of Euripides, after being thrown in prison by the king, the
maenads suddenly find their chains mysteriously absent, and witness the prison doors which
surround them open of their own accord. In myths Dionysus frequently plays the role of “the
liberator”, another of the many titles bestowed on him by the Ancient Greeks.

The liberating spirit of Dionysus is embodied in his role as the god of wine, which has the power
to animate, arouse, and inspire. It is said that in public festivals which paid homage to Dionysus,
streams of wine flowed spontaneously, and grape vines blossomed and ripened in a single day.
But, like all aspects which inhere in the figure of Dionysus, wine too has a dual nature: it can
enchant, but excessive use can also lead to inebriated destruction and ruin.

If the “god of many forms” can be said to have a basic nature and essence, it is this: that
paradox and duality are embodied in his being. “The fullness of life and the violence of death”
(Otto) are one and the same, undifferentiated, within him. Dionysus is the god of tragic contrast.
In the words of Otto:

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“It is true that the worlds of the other gods are not without paradox. But none of these
worlds is as disrupted by it as the world of Dionysus. He, the nurturer and the god of
rapture; he, the god who is forever praised as the giver of wine which removes all sorrow
and care; he, the deliverer and healer, “the delight of mortals”, “the god of many joys”,
the dancer and ecstatic lover, “the bestower of riches”, the “benefactor” – this god who is
the most delightful of all the gods is also the most frightful. No single Greek god even
approaches Dionysus in the horror of his epithets, which bear witness to a savagery that
is absolutely without mercy. In fact, one must evoke the memory of the monstrous horror
of eternal darkness to find anything at all comparable. He is called the “render of men”,
“the eater of raw flesh”, “who delights in the sword and bloodshed”. Correspondingly we
hear not only of human sacrifice in his cult but also of the ghastly ritual in which a man is
torn to pieces.” (Walter Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult)

To understand the significance of Dionysus in the modern day, both Walter Otto and Nietzsche
thought we must seek out the worldview which lay behind the myths and cults surrounding the
god.

“The visage of every true god is the visage of a world. There can be a god who is mad
only if there is a mad world which reveals itself through him. Where is this world? Can
we still find it? Can we appreciate its nature?” ((Walter Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult)

The vision of the cosmos Nietzsche perceived as revealing itself through Dionysus was a tragic
worldview he believed capable of restoring the dignity and capacity for heroism which the
modern world has largely lost.

At the core of this Dionysian tragic worldview is a principle contained in one of the fragments of
Heraclitus: “Everything always has its opposite within itself.” In the myths of Dionysus, madness,
destruction, and death hover over all those he comes in contact with, but likewise does the
possibility for healing, liberation, bliss, and the removal of all sorrow and care. Dionysus is “the
great ambivalent one” who is both “the divine archetype of all triumphant heroes” and
simultaneously the “suffering and dying god”. The god of tragic contrast is symbolic of the tragic
contrast within all things. He expresses the truth that opposition and harmony, creation and
destruction, ecstasy and terror, life and death, are inseparable from each other.

Such a tragic insight into the nature of things can stimulate what Nietzsche called a “Dionysian
affirmation of life” – a complete affirmation of the totality of being where the negative and
destructive elements are not slandered, explained away, or rejected, but seen as a necessary
component of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and therefore as ultimately desirable.

“The saying Yes to life even in its strangest and hardest problems; the will to life…that is
what I call Dionysian.” (Twilight of the Idols)

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But a “tragic disposition” and Dionysian affirmation of life is not easy to cultivate, requiring a
strength of which most are incapable. To attain the capacity to gaze simultaneously into and
affirm equally both the “horrors of night” and the “heights of bliss”, to join together “peak and
abyss” (Nietzsche), or in the words of Thomas Carlyle, to see the universe as a “mystic temple
and hall of doom” and still say Yes to it, requires the rare state of being Nietzsche called “the
great health”.

All those who lack this health would be destroyed by a tragic vision of the cosmos. A mere
glimpse into the abysses of life would cause them to slander existence like those whom
Zarathustra called “the preachers of death” – individuals who in the midst of pain, suffering, or
tragic insight, assert “Life is refuted!” (Z), and advocate renunciation and world-weariness.

“They negate life;”, Nietzsche wrote of all those who preach world-weariness, “they
slander it, hence they are my antipodes.” (Nietzsche contra Wagner)

Nietzsche found in Dionysus a symbol for his opposition against all those who preach
renunciation.

“How differently Dionysus spoke to me! How alien all this resignation was to me!”
(Nietzsche)

Within the myths and cults of Dionysus Nietzsche intuited the presence of a “great health” which
he believed saturated Ancient Greek culture, enabling the Greek individual to cultivate the
strength required to not only endure, but worship as divine, the tragic contrast embedded in the
nature of reality:

“The fullness of life and the violence of death are equally terrible in Dionysus. The Greek
endured this reality in its total dimensions and worshipped it as divine.”(Walter Otto,
Dionysus: Myth and Cult)

The tragic sensibility which pervaded early Ancient Greek culture can be perceived in their
worship of procreation, and their recognition that pain and suffering are necessarily intrinsic to
all forms of birth and creation. “What suffering this race must have endured”, Nietzsche wrote of
the Ancient Greeks, “in order to create such beauty.”

In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche explained the feeling of sacredness the Ancient Greeks felt
towards the pain which precedes birth and creation:

“For the Greeks a sexual symbol was therefore the most sacred symbol…Every single
element in the act of procreation, of pregnancy, and of birth aroused the highest and
most solemn feelings. In the doctrine of the mysteries, pain is pronounced holy: the
pangs of the woman giving birth consecrate all pain; and conversely all becoming and
growing — all that guarantees a future — involves pain. That there may be the eternal

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joy of creating, that the will to life may eternally affirm itself, the agony of the woman
giving birth must also be there eternally. All this is meant by the word Dionysus.”
(Twilight of the Idols)

For Nietzsche Dionysus symbolizes the justification of pain and suffering both on a personal
level, be it the agony of the woman giving birth or the pain and suffering which precedes the
creation of oneself or a work of art, as well as on a cosmic level. A Dionysian worldview reveals
a universe in which the “boundless fecundity of the world will” builds up and tears down life
forms, worlds, and galaxies in an innocence and agony that conveys the idea that pain and
suffering are part of the primordial essence of things, and that to remove them would be to
remove life itself in all its beauty and grandeur.

As a result of this tragic worldview “the tragic man affirms even the hardest lot on earth”,
realizing that as long as he possesses the “great health”, pain, suffering, and tragedy are to be
not only welcomed but worshiped as “the great stimulants of his life”, and that he will only “grow
stronger through the accidents that threaten to destroy him.” (The Will to Power)

To attain a Dionysian affirmation of life and not only accept the “horrible, evil, problematic”
aspects of existence as necessary, but affirm them as a highly desirable part of the whole, is an
ideal that is likely not achievable as a permanent state of being. The proclivity of human beings,
in the midst of intense suffering, to become resentful “preachers of death” and long for some
form of escape, is far too strong to overcome once and for all. But if a Dionysian affirmation of
the world is possible, even as a fleeting and temporary experience, the struggle and effort
required to achieve this mode of being is well worth the effort.

For the heights that one scales when one is able to look into the dreadful abysses of life, to
experiment with the most painful thoughts and the most extreme form of nihilism, and still be
able to emerge from such depths and affirm life – saying Yes to it in its totality – is arguably the
highest state a human being can attain:

In a passage from The Will to Power titled “My new path to a “Yes””, Nietzsche conveyed this
idea:

“Philosophy, as I have hitherto understood and lived it, is a voluntary quest for even the
most detested and notorious sides of existence…Such an experimental philosophy as I
live anticipates experimentally even the possibilities of the most fundamental nihilism;
but this does not mean that it must halt at a negation, a No, a will to negation. It wants
rather to cross over to the opposite of this – to a Dionysian affirmation of the world as it
is, without subtraction, exception, or selection…The highest state a philosopher can
attain: to stand in a Dionysian relationship to existence – my formula for this is amor fati
[love of fate].” (The Will to Power)

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NIETZSCHE AND TRUTH: SKEPTICISM AND THE FREE
SPIRIT

“Perhaps nobody yet has been truthful enough about what “truthfulness” is.” (Beyond
Good and Evil)

These words, penned by Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil, reflect his belief that in many
cases what are considered established truths are instead errors, lies, and convictions that have
grown out of fear, need, and cowardice.

“I was the first to discover the truth by being the first to experience lies as lies.” (Ecce
Homo)

In this video we’ll investigate one variety of “truth” Nietzsche sought to expose as error, explain
his method for attaining the truth, and introduce his notion of the “genuine philosopher” – the
“free spirit” who has become master over his mind.

A commonly held view is that the good and the true are inextricably connected. Adherents of
this view tend to believe that the discovery of truth is a pleasurable process, and the more truths
that are discovered the better off humanity will be.

Nietzsche was skeptical of this view, suggesting that it was often adopted for psychological
purposes. Specifically, to protect people from the realization that the discovery of truth is not
always pleasurable, but can sometimes agitate and torture an individual.

While some truths can liberate the individual and result in the advancement of mankind, other
truths can stimulate despair and the degeneration of the human race. Thus, the true and the
good, in Nietzsche’s view, are often conflicting.

“Something might be true while being harmful and dangerous in the highest degree.
Indeed, it might be a basic characteristic of existence that those who would know it
completely would perish.”(Beyond Good and Evil)

In Human, all too Human he echoed this idea:

“There is no pre-established harmony between the furthering of truth and the good of
mankind.” (Human, all too Human)

As the realization of truths is not always beneficial, Nietzsche insisted that untruth and the will to
ignorance has reigned over all cultures stretching back into the ancient past. Many of man’s so

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called “truths” which have been “discovered” are nothing but “irrefutable errors”, falsifications of
the world without which the human species would have perished long ago.

“Life is no argument. The conditions of life might include error.” (The Gay Science)

In a note collected in the Will to Power he reiterated this idea:

“Truth is the kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live. The value
for life is ultimately decisive.” (The Will to Power)

While most people throughout history have held on to errors they believed to be truths, there are
always a select few individuals who are capable of seeking the truth at all costs. These people
possess a unique strength, generated by the realization that the quest for truth is neither
peaceful nor pleasurable, but a battle requiring courage and vigor.

“Man has had to fight for every atom of the truth, and has had to pay for it almost
everything that the heart, that human love, that human trust cling to. Greatness of soul is
needed for this business: the service of truth is the hardest of all services.” (The
Antichrist)

For the individual strong enough to seek the truth, Nietzsche advocated a method of attaining
knowledge called “experimentalism”, based on his belief that “Convictions are more dangerous
enemies of truth than lies.”(Human, all too Human).

A lie is an outward expression of a falsehood one inwardly knows to be false, meaning the liar
can still know the truth. A conviction, on the other hand, is an inward certainty one has attained
the truth, and thus in many cases, gives way to an arrogance that enmeshes one in a web of
delusion and falsehood, and cuts one off from the possibility of moving towards knowledge.

“The claim that truth is found and that ignorance and error are at an end is one of the
most potent seductions there is. Supposing it is believed, then the will to examination,
investigation, caution, experiment is paralyzed…“Truth” is therefore more fateful than
error and ignorance, because it cuts off the forces that work toward enlightenment and
knowledge.”(The Will to Power)

Employing the experimentalism advocated by Nietzsche involves becoming your own greatest
critic, subjecting your cherished convictions to constant assessment, and attacking every so
called “truth” you believe, in order to determine how strong its foundations really are. It involves
actively seeking out and experimenting with new ideas, trying them on for size, so to speak, and
continually updating and improving your judgments about the world.

After all, the ability to change our beliefs is a unique and precious capacity of the human mind –
one of its defining features; but it must be continually exercised to prevent atrophy. Nietzsche’s

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experimentalism trains this capacity, and is thus a counterforce against the attraction people
feel towards conforming to narrow faiths and dogmatic visions of the world.

“The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented
from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.”(Dawn of Day)

In an aphorism titled “To What Extent The Thinker Loves His Enemy” from the Dawn of Day,
Nietzsche advised:

“Make it a rule never to withhold or conceal from yourself anything that may be thought
against your own thoughts. Vow it! This is the essential requirement of honest thinking.
You must undertake such a campaign against yourself every day.” (Dawn of Day)

Most people are unable to abide by this daily practice as their personal identity becomes tied up
with certain beliefs they hold on faith. Such people become fearful of new and challenging
ideas, seeing them as a threat to their character and worldview.

The skeptic, in contrast, adopts a more profitable approach by maintaining a proper distance
from his beliefs. He is therefore able to play with ideas, move in and out of them with grace and
suppleness, and use them as tools in the service of a heroic goal.

Nietzsche contrasted the skeptic and the man of faith. “A mind that aspires to great things…is
necessarily sceptical.” (The Antichrist) While, “The need for faith, for anything unconditional in
yes and no, is a proof of weakness.”(The Will to Power)

The individual who is able to integrate Nietzsche’s experimentalism into their life, and live from
the perspective of various viewpoints and experiment with ideas in the service of a “grand
passion”, Nietzsche called “the free spirit”.

While the vast majority of people are “bound spirits”, prisoners of beliefs that have been
inculcated into them by their parents, governments, and religions, the free spirit is one who has
liberated himself from these chains. “The term “free spirit” here is not to be understood in any
other sense; it means a spirit that has become free, that has taken possession of itself.” (Ecce
Homo)

In contrast to bound spirits, whose weakness motivates them to censor and label as dangerous
ideas which challenge their worldview, the free spirit, as “a monster of courage and curiosity…a
born adventurer and discoverer” (Nietzsche), is driven to grasp even the treacherous truths
which would destroy the weak.

But with the spirit of the search for truth on their side, the free spirit also understands that in the
search for truth it is not only terribleness that one will find, but truths that are liberating both to

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the individual and society, and which, for various reasons, are often hidden away or deemed
blasphemous by mainstream opinion.

In seeking these truths, the free spirit – the “genuine and solitary philosopher” – becomes an
enemy of all those who attempt to promote ignorance for the sake of gaining power over others.

As master of his mind, the free spirit forms an internal vault untouchable by those who wish to
deceive, and thus, perhaps unknowingly, keeps alive the flame of truth even in darker ages of
ignorance, censorship, and tyranny.

As Nietzsche penned:

“Where there have been powerful societies, governments, religions, public opinions, in
short wherever there has been tyranny, there the solitary philosopher has been hated;
for philosophy offers an asylum to a man into which no tyranny can force its way, the
inward cave, the labyrinth of the heart: and that annoys the tyrants.” (Untimely
Meditations III)

NIETZSCHE AND THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA: BECOMING


GODS

“God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console our
selves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the
world has so far possessed, has bled to death under our knife, who will wipe the blood
from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What purifications, what sacred
games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us?
Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never
was a greater event and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher
history than any history so far!” (The Gay Science, Nietzsche)

It has been said that man does not live by bread alone, but that he also requires a meaning to
sustain him amidst the harsh realities of life. Historically this meaning has been provided for by
a belief in the sacred, that is, in the existence of unseen realities which are posited to be the
source of power and significance.

Primitive man experienced the sacred in the form of what the religious historian Mircea Eliade
called hierophanies – occurrences whereby objects of nature appeared to transform in front of
his eyes and become imbued with a transpersonal power and significance. The rituals and
festivals devoted to the gods and spirits of nature were centred around evoking these
experiences through means such as rhythmic music and dance, and the use of psychedelic

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drugs. For primitive man the sacred was real, and convinced of his participation in it, he felt his
life to be meaningful.

The advent of Christianity in the West represented but a slight modification in this primitive
worldview, at least for the purposes that concern us here. Within the Christian worldview the
sacred was transferred from the immanence of nature to the transcendence of heaven, and the
polytheism of many nature gods combined into the monotheism of one supreme God. But
despite these changes the sacred retained its preeminent importance, as the goal of life for the
Christian remained the same as that of the primitive: to live as close as possible to the sacred,
which the Christian did by living in communion with God in the hopes of ascending into heaven
in the afterlife. The Christian, like the primitive, was assured of the existence of the sacred, and
thus he too felt his life to be meaningful even when external conditions were harsh.

But Christianity, according to Nietzsche, was destined to fall from its beginnings, and when it did
he correctly predicted that those in the West would be forced for the first time in history to
perceive the cosmos through the lens of a profane worldview totally stripped of the sacred. With
no connection to the sacred Western man would be thrown into a tumultuous epoch defined by
a crisis of meaning.

“It should be said at once that the completely profane world, the wholly desacralized
cosmos, is a recent discovery in the history of the human spirit…for the nonreligious men
of the modern age, the cosmos has become opaque, inert, mute; it transmits no
message, it holds no cipher.” (The Sacred and The Profane, Mircea Eliade)

The collapse of Christianity was inevitable, explained Nietzsche, given its metaphysical faith
“which was also the faith of Plato, that God is truth, that the truth is divine.”(The Gay Science,
Nietzsche) This faith was Christianity’s achilles’ heel from the start, as given the supreme value
Christianity attributed to the truth, it was only a matter of time until more inquisitive minds within
the Church would turn a critical eye upon the roots of Christianity and ask the fatal question:

“what if God himself turns out to be our most persistent lie?” (The Gay Science,
Nietzsche)

Over the centuries, and especially with the rise of the scientific worldview, disbelief in Christian
dogma spread throughout Europe, and by the late 19th century this disbelief had grown so
strong that Nietzsche felt compelled to announce to the world “God is dead”.

But he did not speak these words in outright celebration. Instead, he prophesied that as the
realization slowly dawned on the West that at the bedrock of their worldview was a persistent
lie, a growing skepticism and demoralization would emerge. Feeling ashamed that so time and
energy was invested in a worldview based on a faith in lies, Nietzsche believed modern man
would react in an extreme compensatory manner and not only disbelieve in Christian dogma,
but not believe in anything at all.

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In a note from the Will to Power Nietzsche shed light on this historical development.

“The end of Christianity – at the hands of its own morality…which turns against the
Christian God. The sense of truthfulness, developed highly by Christianity, is nauseated
by the falseness and mendaciousness of all Christian interpretations of the world and of
history; rebound from “God is truth” to the fanatical faith “All is false”.” (The Will to Power,
Nietzsche)

This drastic shift from “God is truth” to the fanatical faith “All is false” resulted in the retraction of
all religious values, and along with it a sense of the sacred, from the worldview of the modern
West. This has proved highly problematic, as the sacred has been an integral part of the
worldview of virtually every culture in history, embodying the higher values and spiritual ideals
which have enabled those in the past to strive for heroic goals and push their culture forward.

Lacking these elevating values and ideals, Nietzsche thought modern individuals would be led
to drastically underestimate their own potential for greatness. In doing so, they would
incapacitate the heroic impulse to will ambitious goals and eradicate the “desires that create
clefts” (The Will to Power, Nietzsche) which differentiate the higher type of human beings from
the lower. Consequently, he envisioned a type of individual emerging whom he called “the last
man”, namely, one who, instead of focusing on ways to enhance the grandeur of man, is
concerned solely with using science and technology to enhance the pleasure and comfort of
man. If asked “What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?”(Thus Spoke
Zarathustra), the last man, thought Nietzsche, would blink in dumbfounded amusement.

It is with this modern world in mind that Nietzsche wrote his masterpiece, Thus Spoke
Zarathustra, representing his attempt to restore the sanctity and dignity of human existence in a
spiritually destitute modern world.

“Among my writings my Zarathustra stands by itself. With this book I have given mankind
the greatest gift it has ever been given.” (Ecce Homo, Nietzsche)

However, as the death of God has resulted in a growing skepticism Nietzsche did not think
everyone capable of such a spiritual revivification Instead, he believed the task would be left to
a select few who possess the knowledge and strength needed to extricate themselves from the
decaying spirit of the times, and who in the struggle to realize heroic goals can find the
meaning, fulfillment, and the ability to affirm life which so many are starving for today. It is to
these select few individuals, those who “have ears for Zarathustra”(Ecce Homo, Nietzsche), that
Nietzsche wrote his masterpiece: “To lure many away from the herd”, he has Zarathustra inform
his readers, “that is why I have come”(Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

In a series of speeches given through the mouth of the prophet Zarathustra, Nietzsche puts
forth what the philosopher Peter Berkowitz called an “ethics of self-deification” – a set of severe

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demands intended to introduce modern individuals, in the wake of the death of God, to the
possibility of “becoming gods”. For too long, thought Nietzsche, human beings have
externalized their highest values and ideals of perfection into the cosmos. It is now time, he
thought, for the individual to realize himself as the creator of these values, and thus capable of
forging his own meaning and embodying his own justification, rather than remaining dependent
on external institutions and creeds.

But given that a herd instinct remains a dominant force in the psyche of man, Nietzsche realized
that the emands of Zarathustra are so antithetical to human nature that if one were capable of
attaining them they would have to overcome the limits of their humanity and become what he
called the Superman. “I teach you the Superman.”, announces Zarathustra, “Man is something
that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?..All gods are dead: now we
want the Superman to live.”(Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

For the more courageous and independent souls of today, the ideal Nietzsche expounds
through the mouth of Zarathustra is not to become the Superman – as such a task is too far
beyond what is possible for the modern human – but instead to act as “bridges to the
Superman”, or in other words, to live as a higher type of human being so as to pave the way for
even higher types to emerge in the future.

As Zarathustra informs the higher humans living today:

“I need pure, smooth mirrors for my teaching; upon your surface even my own reflection
is distorted.
Many a burden, many a memory weighs down your shoulders; many an evil dwarf
crouches in your corners. And there is a hidden mob in you, too.
And although you are high and of a higher type, much in you is crooked and malformed.
There is no smith in the world who could hammer you straight and into shape for me.
You are only bridges: may higher men than you step across upon you!”(Thus Spoke
Zarathustra)

In the series of videos that follows we will explore some of Zarathustra’s more insightful and
powerful speeches, in which he puts forth his ethics of self-deification and his ideal of the
Superman. In the process of doing this we must take Nietzsche’s advice, and despite his often
prophetic pronouncements not mistake him as a preacher or one attempting to found a new
religion. “No fanatic speaks to you here, this is not a “sermon”; no faith is demanded in these
pages.”(Ecce Homo, Nietzsche). Instead, in traversing the parables of Zarathustra we will
extract much more value if we see in them a manifestation of a deep concern which plagued
Nietzsche his entire life – that being, how to reinstitute the yearning for greatness in a world
which, stripped of the sacred and all higher values and ideals, is increasingly becoming
inhospitable to it.

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“The time is coming when man will no more shoot the arrow of his longing out over
mankind, and the string of his bow will have forgotten how to twang!”(Thus Spoke
Zarathustra)

For when the hunger for heroism dies in a culture, the culture begins to die too. It is to the
individual in the culturally decaying modern West that Nietzsche dedicated his masterpiece.

“But, by my love and hope I entreat you: do not reject the hero in your soul! Keep holy
your highest hope!” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

NIETZSCHE AND THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA: THE LAST


MAN AND THE SUPERMAN

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the main character leaves his home at the age of 30 and retreats
into the mountains hoping to find enlightenment. There, “6000 feet beyond man and time”,
Zarathustra remains for 10 years, and in his solitude his spirit grows and he pierces into the
enigma of man and existence. One morning, tired of his solitude and overflowing with wisdom,
he rises at dawn and speaks to the sun:

“Great star! What would your happiness be, if you had not those for whom you shine!
You have come up here to my cave for ten years: you would have grown weary of your
light and of this journey, without me, my eagle and my serpent…
Behold! I am weary of my wisdom, like a bee that has gathered too much honey; I need
hands outstretched to take it.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

Zarathustra decides that it is time to detach himself from his heightened consciousness, and like
the setting sun, descend from his mountain to empty his wisdom into the world of ordinary men.

“I must descend into the depths: as you do at evening, when you go behind the sea and
bring light to the underworld too, superabundant star!
Like you, I must go down…
Behold! This cup wants to be empty again, and Zarathustra wants to be man again.”
(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

During Zarathustra’ descent he encounters a solitary old man who asks Zarathustra what
business he has with mankind. Zarathustra replies that he loves mankind and is bringing them
the gift of his overflowing wisdom. The old man warns Zarathustra that mankind will not take
kindly to his offering, but will respond with ridicule and hatred. But Zarathustra brushes aside the
old man’s warning, and continues on his mission.

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He soon comes upon a town where a crowd is gathered, awaiting the performance of a
tight-rope walker. Seizing upon the opportunity to spread his wisdom, he begins by teaching the
crowd his cosmic principle of creative evolution.

“I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you
done to overcome him? All creatures hitherto have created something beyond
themselves: and do you want to be the ebb of this great tide, and return to the animals
rather than overcome man?” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

Zarathustra’s cosmic principle of creative evolution, in contrast to Darwinian evolution, proposes


that evolution is not guided by accidental mutations and adaptations, but by a teleological force
which regulates the development of life from a lower spiritual state to a higher. This force is
directly felt by human beings as aspiration, and by embracing this aspiration, according to
Zarathustra, the individual can overcome himself and evolve.

The teachings of the Christian church repressed this aspiration by spreading the idea that to
seek autonomy and act in the service of one’s self-interest is a sin, while to sacrifice oneself and
admit dependence upon God the highest good. As such, animalistic impulses such as sexual
lust, pride, and the desire for power, were branded as evil elements to be tamed and eradicated.
The individual was taught by the Christian church not to overcome himself, but to deny himself,
and to weaken his body for the sake of his soul.

“The church fights passion with excision in every sense: its practice, its “cure,” is
castratism. It never asks: “How can one spiritualize, beautify, deify a craving?” It has at
all times laid the stress of discipline on extirpation (of sensuality, of pride, of the lust to
rule, of avarice, of vengefulness). But an attack on the roots of passion means an attack
on the roots of life: the practice of the church is hostile to life.” (Nietzsche, Twilight of the
Idols)

Zarathustra urges the crowd to discard with the teachings of the church and instead to create a
new meaning of the earth; one that embrace’s the individual’s desire to actualize and assert
himself, and promotes the development of a strong body in which the natural natural instincts
are seen as sources of energy to be channeled and sublimated for the sake of self-overcoming.
This new meaning, Zarathustra announces to be the Superman.

“Once you said ‘God’ when you gazed upon distant seas; but now I have taught you to
say ‘Superman’” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

Upon finishing his speech those in the crowd, believing Zarathustra to be the tight-rope walker
they were awaiting, laugh and call out: “Now we have heard enough of the tight-rope walker; let
us see him, too!” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra) The tight-rope walker, assuming these
calls from the crowd to be his cue, emerges from his tower and begins his performance.

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Unfazed by their apparent confusion, Zarathustra continues his speech, and uses the tight-rope
walker’s appearance as a metaphor for man’s relationship to the Superman.

“Man is a rope,” Zarathustra cries out to the crowd, “fastened between animal and
Superman – a rope over an abyss.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

The tight-rope walker’s performance is dangerous as he must traverse a rope suspended over a
deep chasm. So too, in bringing about the Superman, man must live dangerously. He must
assume great risks and never remain stagnant, but despite the dangers always live for the sake
of self-transformation. As Zarathustra explains, those who live in this manner are the individuals
destined to be the harbingers of the Superman.

“I love all those who are like heavy drops falling singly from the dark cloud that hangs
over mankind: they prophesy the coming of the lightning and as prophets they perish.
Behold, I am a prophet of the lightning and a heavy drop from the cloud: but this
lightning is called Superman.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

When Zarathustra finishes his speech, the crowd erupts in laughter once more. Believing the
fault to lie in his approach, he tries a different tactic; he appeals to the pride of the crowd by
warning them that Western culture is in decline, crippled by a disability of values. He informs
them that this decline is breeding “the most contemptible man”, The Last Man, the counter ideal
of the Superman.

“It is time for man to fix his goal. It is time for man to plant the seed of his highest hope.
His soil is still rich enough for it. But this soil will one day be poor and weak; no longer
will a high tree be able to grow from it…
“I tell you: one must have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star. I tell you: you still
have chaos in you.
“Alas! The time is coming when man will give birth to no more stars….
Behold! I shall show you the Last Man…” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

The Last Man is the individual who specializes not in creation, but in consumption. In the midst
of satiating base pleasures, he claims to have “discovered happiness” by virtue of the fact that
he lives in the most technologically advanced and materially luxurious era in human history.

But this self-infatuation of the Last Man conceals an underlying resentment, and desire for
revenge. On some level, the Last Man knows that despite his pleasures and comforts, he is
empty and miserable. With no aspiration and no meaningful goals to pursue, he has nothing he
can use to justify the pain and struggle needed to overcome himself and transform himself into
something better. He is stagnant in his nest of comfort, and miserable because of it. This misery
does not render him inactive, but on the contrary, it compels him to seek victims in the world. He
cannot bear to see those who are flourishing and embodying higher values, and so he
innocuously supports the complete de-individualization of every person in the name of equality.

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The Last Man’s utopia is one in which total equality is maintained not from without, by an
oppressive ruling class, but from within, through the “evil-eye” of envy and ridicule.

“No herdsman and one herd. Everyone wants the same thing, everyone is the same:
whoever thinks otherwise goes voluntarily into the madhouse.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke
Zarathustra

Upon finishing his speech on the Last Man, the crowd cries out: “Make us into this Last Man!
You can have the Superman!” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra) Hearing their ridicule, the
warning of the old man in the forest rings through Zarathustra’s head. He had come to mankind
out of love and with a gift, but they responded to him with ridicule and contempt, just as the old
man had predicted:

“And now they look at me and laugh: and laughing, they still hate me. There is ice in their
laughter.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

The realization dawns on Zarathustra that the mass of men are incapable of understanding the
significance of his words. And so he formulates a new mission. He is not going to bring his gift
and love to mankind, but to a select few individuals with the potential to rise above the herd, and
who, in the words of Zarathustra, “follow me because they want to follow themselves – and who
want to go where I want to go.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra) With a newfound optimism
and hope, Zarathustra leaves the town in search of new companions on whom he can bestow
his wisdom.

As he departs on his journey, Zarathustra witnesses an omen in the sky. With the sun at its
midday peak, he sees an eagle soaring through the air with a snake coiled around its neck, not
as its prey, but as its friend. This is a strange sight, as historically the eagle, a symbol for the
highest aspirations of the spirit, has been portrayed as the enemy of the snake, a symbol for
animalistic desire and evil. The union of the eagle and snake thus represents for Zarathustra the
following injunction: for the full development of the self we must not only embrace our greatest
possibilities, but also lift our shadow out of its psychological depths, and acknowledge our
capacity for evil. As Zarathustra elaborates in one of his later speeches to his companions:

“It is the same with the human being as with the tree. The higher they climb into the
height and light, the more strongly their roots strive earthward, downward, into the dark,
the depths – into evil.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

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