Friedrich Nietzsche was a classical philologist (someone whom studies the foundational schools of knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans, such as literature, law and philosophy) and philosopher whose work was extremely influential to many philosophical and political movements in the Western World and to Western intellectual thought in general.
Friedrich Nietzsche is primarily remembered by the general public for just two things, his utopian ideal of the Ubermensch (Overman, Superman or Ultraman; one who transcends humanity) and his famous quote from his controversial text, Beyond Good and Evil, which states, “He who fights with monsters should be careful, lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze also into thee.” (It should be noted that there are various translations of this passage, but they generally vary only in the slightest of details and do not affect the general thrust of what was being said).
All though both of these ideas were important to Nietzsche neither was particularly foundational to the framework of his philosophy. The main theme within his works is one of creative destruction, tearing down old ideals and institutions and rebuilding new ones in their places. This fixation was born from the German philosophers proclamation, “God is dead!” This, at the time, radical proclamation was based upon his evaluation of prevailing social norms and his extremely prescient estimation that Christianity, specifically in the West was dying and that without it Christians and those whom were not religious but yet clung to conventional Judeo-Christian philosophy would scramble for a moral compass, fail to find one and fall into utter nihilism.
Indeed, much of Nietzsche’s writing focuses specifically on nihilism and his main projects arose, predominantly as a reactionary response to the lack of rationality and life affirming values he saw in the world around him. His aim was to provide a moral and intellectual framework for the godless and dispossessed and do so in a fashion which did not rely on anything that was beyond or outside of the one life that was given them (such as a soul, eternal afterlives or the like). He put forth a radical return to primal values and strongly advocated for constant, ruthless internal self analysis so that, as he put it, “One can become what one is.”
Controversy; Nietzsche, the “Fascist”
Friedrich Nietzsche is often, and sadly, mistakenly associated with the Nazi party, the Aryan Brotherhood, anti-Semitic movements and racism in general. If one were to read the newer translations of his works the reader would most likely end up scratching their heads as to why as he is neither a racist nor a nationalist (indeed, he had some extremely scathing things to say about Germany and German culture during his day), in fact he specifically admired the Jewish and Asian cultural traditions as being life affirming, strong and intellectual with, as he say it, a rightly emphasis on order and rank.
The reason for this misconception of Nietzsche as a proto-Nazi and supporter of social Darwinism (which is especially ironic given that he never actually read Darwin) stems entirely from his sister’s machinations. In the year of 1889, during a stay in Turin, Italy, Friedrich Nietzsche had a complete mental breakdown and collapsed in the street. He was taken to the nearest psychiatric clinic and moved around between medical institutions in both Basel and Jena and finally was placed under the care of his sister, Elisabeth. Elisabeth and Friedrich, though very close during their childhood, had grown very distant by the 1880’s when Elisabeth married a man by the name of Bernhard Forster, a zealous German nationalist, white supremacist and anti-Semite. Due to Friedrich Nietzsche’s intense disdain of nationalism and antisemitism he broke off contact with his sister, whom had increasingly begun to adopt her husbands radical and dangerous ideals.
After taking in her invalid brother, Elisabeth obtained all the rights to her brother’s vast store of writing and began to publish his works all around Germany, albeit after they had been edited to suit her white nationalist agenda. With rising racial tensions between Germans and Jews at the time these inflammatory additions proved to be extremely popular and Nietzsche began to garner the fame and adoration he had always felt his works deserved, sadly he was not to live to see it.
Friedrich Nietzsche died shortly after being placed under his sister’s care in 1900 and had gained such a popular reputation at that point that Hitler even attended his funeral (furthering the false allegations that he was a Nazi). Thankfully, judicious and thorough modern scholarship has exposed the various additions and omissions which Elisabeth made to her brothers writings and most modern translations of Nietzsche now follow his original manuscripts.
Legacy and Current Implications
Despite the fact that Nietzsche’s body of work was largely ignored and oft derided during his own lifetime his had become something of a legend in academic and intellectual circles today. But his work had established itself as much more than just the faddish pass time of pretentious collegiates and has hugely impacted a diverse array of rewarding and innovative thinkers and political movements. Some of these include the controversial Danish social critic and philosopher, Georg Brandes (one of the few people who was massively influenced by Nietzsche during the latter’s own lifetime) who is well known for his espousal of “Radical Aristocracy,” or the founders of the field of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, whose work was directly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche writings, specifically his focus on causations and their obfuscation (confusing the source for the cause and vice-versa). The list goes on to include such illustrious thinkers as Jaspers, Heidegger and Camus as well as influential authors such as Hermann Hesse and Andre Gide.
Though few in the West realize it, Nietzsche’s influence has only continued to grow and expand since his rise to popularity after his death. Such concepts as his rigid individualism and hatred of authoritarianism (similar to those held by John Dewey and John Locke) have been passed down through the years from thinker to thinker and now pervade nearly all of Western society. In addition, Nietzsche’s views on sexuality (that sex is not the opposite of virtue, no matter the form) have also been widely spread and adopted in the West as is evidenced by the decline of marriage (for better or for worse) and the increase of previously deviant sexual identities (such as trans and homosexual). Perhaps most notably, his declaration of “God is Dead” has been used over and over again by the New Atheist Movement of the United States as well as his criticism of the church. Regardless of one’s views on the late and eccentric philosopher, one thing is undeniable – he sought to change the world, and did and whether one thinks it was for the better or not the act itself is a feat all should find impressive.