There are, perhaps, no religious criticisms more vitriolic than Friedrich Nietzsche’s. The world has yet to see a philosopher more staunchly opposed to traditional morality or contemporary society. It is peculiar that the son of a minister, born in a rural village southwest of Leipzig, would develop into one of the most creative, agile minds in the history of philosophy. Indeed, the realm of Nietzsche’s reasoning was as expansive as any before him. That is, the context in which he viewed reality had a dual nature: he only concerned himself with the realities of the world we live in (as opposed to those situated beyond veritable existence), yet he believed that true understanding of the human condition was more contingent upon an intuitive mind than science and reason alone, which was in accordance with the views held by many Romantic philosophers of the time, particularly Arthur Schopenhauer, who preceded him.
In effect, Nietzsche became a pioneer for existential philosophy. Friedrich Nietzsche created a fascinating philosophy on morality and culture, full of new ideas and a revolutionary view on the bio psychosocial nature of mankind. Such a synthesis of philosophical questioning, scientific reasoning, and social criticism was the product of Arthur Schopenhauer’s romanticism, Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and Immanuel Kant’s empiricism. It was the plasticity of Nietzsche’s opinions that enabled him to amalgamate the three men’s works into one philosophy, and the rigidity of his beliefs that drove him to seek answers in the very specific context of reality, and indeed, create some context himself.
Atheism existed long before Nietzsche, this much is known. However, it was not a widely accepted belief-system. Not only did Friedrich Nietzsche discount the existence of a god, he spent no time arguing his point. The concept of a god was laughable to Nietzsche, to say the least. He preferred to analyze the philosophical and psychological foundations of religion rather than engage in a rhetorical spree of anecdotal evidence and debate. In Daybreak Nietzsche pens “In former times, one sought to prove that there is no God – today one indicates how the belief that there is a god arose and how this belief acquired its weight and importance: a counter-proof that there is no God thereby becomes superfluous.- When in the 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.” To Nietzsche, it was only a matter of time until Christianity was an obsolete religion. His beliefs were radical even for an atheist.
Never had Schopenhauer or Kant predicted that God would be completely eradicated from human culture, nor did they think such an occurrence was necessary. Champion of the Atheists that he was, how is it that Nietzsche could boldly proclaim “God is dead” while refusing to believe that a deity existed in the first place? To be fair, Nietzsche himself did not make the statement, he included it within a dialogue. That being said, he may have been better served asserting that “God is not alive.” Death implies birth, and Nietzsche did not subscribe to either of the occurrences. The statement was meant to imply that any transient, loosely-founded encounters one could have with god where naught but shadows on the wall. He used Plato’s Cave as an analogy to compare those who accepted meaningless shadows and puppetry as evidence for religion to fettered prisoners (who were unaware of their bondage). Simply put, Nietzsche believed that an emergence of inherent free-will was in order. The escapist nature of a heavenly afterlife disheartened Nietzsche. He truly believed that mankind could and would be happier with a more real sense of purpose, rather than a celestial, detached goal of eternal happiness.
The promises of Christianity were particularly appealing to the poor and the hopeless. Immortal souls, equal in the eyes of god, all with an equal opportunity for salvation and eternal bliss, this was the attraction of Christianity. Nietzsche chastised such a life as one of vanity and weakness. He believed that Christianity was based on the concept that “the world revolves around me.” There were two primary evils of Christianity that Nietzsche attacked fiercely. The “false virtue” of pity encouraged the weak, he claimed. Worse yet was the false hope Christianity instilled in its followers. Nietzsche’s iconic statement, “Hope is the worst of all evils, for it prolongs the torments of Man,” was entirely unheard of in a time where love and hope were not directly attributed to the bible. They were inherently positive (as they remain), no religious critic had questioned Christianity with such pretense before. It was the personal burden of Nietzsche, the “Revaluation of All Values.” In his eyes, values were no longer noble. Contemporary society had accepted their idol as Jesus, a “patron of the weak,” while Nietzsche considered himself “a follower of the philosopher Dionysus.”
The Greek God of exuberance and life represented all that Nietzsche believed was important in life – cultural health, creativity, and the enhancements of the individual in a wholesome way. Dionysus, he believed, would replace Jesus as the premier cultural standard for the future millennia. Despite the complexity of Nietzsche’s work, and his tendency to approach situations from multiple angles, there was consistently a method to his madness. In his highly influential Human, All too Human Nietzsche stated the base-reasoning for his bitter opposition to Christianity. He claimed “Christianity came into existence in order to lighten the heart; but now it has first to burden the heart so as afterwards to be able to lighten it. Consequently it shall perish.” His distaste for organized religion seems to transcend arguments and proofs, Nietzsche was upset by the fact that “salvation” of any form can only exist in the context of a situation which requires salvaging in the first place. This would seem to contradict the theory of a loving, perfect creator.
If one does not ask for existence, Nietzsche inquires, why should they be punished for it? This “Apollonian” force of stiff sobriety clashed with his own Dionysian views of life as full of potential and freedom. In 1865, a twenty-one year old Friedrich Nietzsche made a momentous chance discovery. The accidental finding of Arthur Schopenhauer’s “The World as Will and Representation” in a local bookstore was perhaps the single most important point in his philosophical career. The two shared similar views on religion, and Schopenhauer’s praise of music as an important art form captivated the young thinker. Nietzsche’s atheistic sentiments coupled with his romantic influence from Schopenhauer’s works helped to spawn existential philosophy. Both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche believed that irrational forces were responsible for most creativity, and at the foundation of reality itself. Schopenhauer’s was a more pure existentialism, in that at its heart lie thoughts of dread, nothingness, freedom, alienation, etc.
This extreme existentialism is often coupled with pessimism and the feeling of being trapped within the “iron cage of reason.” Nietzsche was more optimistic in nature, and his more moderate take on the romantic philosophy prevailed throughout history more than the Schopenhauerian version. Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophies were not limited to pessimistic musings and religious concessions, however. One of Nietzsche’s core beliefs, the importance of self-presence and living every moment, is derived from Schopenhauer’s essay “The Emptiness of Existence.” In the first few paragraphs, Schopenhauer manages to extract the essence of conscious reality and presents a raw form of said self-presence. “What has been exists no more; and exists just as little as that which has never been. But everything that exists has been in the next moment. Hence something belonging to the present, however unimportant it may be, is superior to something important belonging to the past; this is because the former is a reality and related to the latter as something is to nothing.”
Following this logic, a moment is only important in the instant it happens. Afterwards, the moment is no more; it is as real as a moment that never happened. In Nietzsche’s opinion, this meant it was vital to create a life of satisfying moments of varying nature, while Schopenhauer had taken a more objective approach. In his mind, it did not do well to chase fleeting moments which, in the next moment, would no longer be worth it. At the same time, he qualified, reality exists of nothing but these short increments of the present, therefore it is always more important to be content with life in the present than in the past or future. This is partially why Schopenhauer was not overly critical of religious adherents. “Religion is the metaphysics of the people” he believed. It was a higher purpose, and could instill a feeling of deep well-being and peace beyond worldly joys.
While religion was Nietzsche’s primary topic of contention, his philosophies extended far beyond theology. In fact, his works on religion and Christianity served as a springboard for his opinions on the human condition, both biologically and socially. This is often lost in the whirlwind of atheism, nihilism, and morality that is associated with Nietzsche’s work. Not many philosophers put forth the effort he did into unifying their philosophy on all levels. Charles Darwin provided Nietzsche with the key to do just that.
When Darwin came across natural selection, Nietzsche realized that the world was on the verge of a breakthrough. Before Darwin, there had been some speculation on evolution and its purpose. Though a sizable minority believed in the principles of evolution, they viewed it in theistic, or even deistic, terms. That is to say, evolution was guided by some higher purpose. The theory of natural selection provided a non-metaphysical explanation for a non-creationist theory. It was, at last, as far removed from god and religion as possible. The implications of this were enormous. R.J. Hollingdale, one of Nietzsche’s biographers, had this to say about the discovery: “Darwin had shown that the higher animals and man could have evolved in just the way they did entirely by fortuitous variations in individuals. Natural selection was for Nietzsche essentially evolution freed from every metaphysical implication: before Darwin’s simple but fundamental discovery it had been difficult to deny that the world seemed to be following some course laid down by a directing agency; after it, the necessity for such a directing agency disappeared, and what seemed to be order could be explained as random change.” The lack of a “directing agency” had finally completed the last piece of the puzzle for Nietzsche. Irrationality and chance could indeed influence the universe, and that was enough for Friedrich Nietzsche to feel at ease with his ignorance of heavenly possibilities. After all, if the universe is chaotic, how then could any type of plan be put in place for an eternity?
Aside from Darwin’s biological findings and Schopenhauer’s extensive romantic questioning, Nietzsche was greatly influenced by Immanuel Kant. While Kant may have had differing philosophical beliefs in some areas, his theory of transcendental idealism explained many of Nietzsche’s own personal opinions. This concept involves preconditions for human experience and knowledge. Transcendental Idealism, in short, establishes space and time not as independently existing entities, but as subjective forms of human intuition. We do not experience things themselves, only their appearances. We experience these appearances because they exist within ourselves, and within our nature.
There are two ways in which the theory of transcendental idealism pertained to Nietzsche’s own thoughts. The first being intuitive knowledge. If we can observe only what we are preconditioned to observe, and the human capacity for perception is limited only to our current perception of space and time, then the world must be half an illusion, or so Nietzsche believed. At any given second, a surrounding scene or fleeting moment can only be experienced in one way, based on prior knowledge and prior biological hardwiring (priori). When this is the case, empirical evidence means everything within that specific context, yet it could mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. Intuitive knowledge is all that allows us to bypass stringent conventional rules of reality and reach a different understanding, or find insightful meaning in something that may not be quite as black and white.
Nietzsche used Plato’s Allegory of the Cave numerous times in his works. He believed that humanity was cursed to chase shadows on the wall purely due to ignorance. Transcendental Idealism makes our universe a literal Plato’s Cave. Kant’s claim that we do not experience or interact with actual, existing bodies, but rather our own perception of these images falls right in line with the entertaining shadows Plato’s prisoners observe. Nietzsche, unsurprisingly, used this knowledge to further criticize organized religion. The typical Christian, in his eyes, was a human who was chasing the best possible shadows. Humans seek the best of the world, but cannot stop there. The most appealing shadow of them all is one of purpose (religion); however, the teachings of this “shadow” conflict with the other desires of the cave.
In Human, All too Human, Nietzsche writes “If the Christian dogmas of a revengeful God, universal sinfulness, election by divine grace and the danger of eternal damnation were true, it would be a sign of weak-mindedness and lack of character not to become a priest, apostle or hermit and, in fear and trembling, to work solely on one’s own salvation; it would be senseless to lose sight of one’s eternal advantage for the sake of temporal comfort. If we may assume that these things are at any rate believed true, then the everyday Christian cuts a miserable figure; he is a man who really cannot count to three, and who precisely on account of his spiritual imbecility does not deserve to be punished so harshly as Christianity promises to punish him.” While Nietzsche believed that such a conflict of “temporal comfort” and “Christian dogmas” was utterly useless and characteristic of the incompetent nature of religion, Kant would have more likely seen it as a fixable problem.
Immanuel Kant emphasized a practical need to believe in God. He felt, more or less, the same way about God as he did about transcendental idealism in that God can be real for our purposes, yet we can never know whether or not there is truly an existing greater power beyond our minds and hearts. Kant did not seem to mind that his philosophy essentially involved living a lie, and this upset Nietzsche (to a small degree).
There was a fair amount of dissent between the opinions of Nietzsche and his influences (particularly Kant) though that did not keep Nietzsche from using every resource at his disposal. The word “influence” may be an overstatement, if anything, as Nietzsche seemed to meticulously pick out which information he found relevant and logical rather than blindly following any one belief system. Blind faith was his worst enemy, as he continually preached “life-affirmation” which involves genuine questioning of any and all doctrines.
The full scope of Nietzsche’s influences will most likely never be revealed, as there were no distinct trends in his works, other than his own. Originality dominated Nietzsche’s work, as it should have. Few philosophers (let alone humans) experienced the physical discomfort Nietzsche did throughout his lifetime. Constant sickness and mental imbalance plagued him during his better years, and ultimately led to his death. The list of 20th century artists, poets, revolutionaries, scholars, and philosophers who were influenced themselves by Friedrich Nietzsche is impressive. Amongst the more prolific are Sigmund Freud, George Bernard Shaw, Stefan Zweig, and many, many others.
Nietzsche has drawn heavy criticism for his “inconsistent” beliefs and oft-changing topics of concern. As a student, he remained restless and pored over hundreds of books, using only a very limited amount of the knowledge he acquired. Nietzsche was always careful not to study any one subject in particular too much. He preferred to rely on instinct and previous works to build upon already forming ideas (and in the process he would often create an entirely new philosophy on the matter anyway). He remained detached, simply because “People who comprehend a thing to its very depths rarely stay faithful to it forever. For they have brought its depths into the light of day: and in the depths there is always much that is unpleasant to see.”
Despite his overly arrogant nature and certainty in specific matters, Nietzsche realized that he was not an all-knowing being. He considered himself knowledgeable in the realm of human understanding, but claimed to know nothing of what could exist beyond our reality. He did maintain, though, that order and rational processes did not make up our universe.
As far as the human condition was concerned, Nietzsche made every effort he could to understand behaviors and beliefs at every level. His integration of biological processes into conscious cognition and social trends set a precedent for all psychologists and philosophers to follow. In order to fully understand anything (or to understand that it can’t be understood) the entire range of possible sources for behavior must be examined. This, in a single sentence, is the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.
eBooks at Adelaide, “Arthur Schopenhauer,” The University of Adelaide, http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/schopenhauer/arthur/index.html (accessed November 5, 2012). Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human: a Book for Free Spirits. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 1996. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Dover, NY: Dover Publications, 2006. Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. Edited by Judith Norman and Alistair Welchman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. The Perspectives of Nietzsche, “Nietzsche Quotes,” The Perspectives of Nietzsche, http://www.theperspectivesofnietzsche.com/ (accessed November 5, 2012).
Hollingdale, R. J. Nietzsche: the Man and His Philosophy (biography). 2 ed. Baton Rouge, LA: Cambridge University Press, 2001. JSTOR Journal Storage, “The Influence of Schopenhauer upon Friedrich Nietzsche,” The Philosophical
Review, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2176260 (accessed November 5, 2012) Rohlf, Michael, “Immanuel Kant”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), available from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/kant/, accessed 18 December 18, 2012 Wicks, Robert, “Arthur Schopenhauer”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2011/entries/schopenhauer/ (accessed 18 December 2012). Wicks, Robert, “Friedrich Nietzsche,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/nietzsche/ (accessed 18 December 2012).
[ 1 ]. The Perspectives of Nietzsche, “Nietzsche Quotes,” The Perspectives of Nietzsche, http://www.theperspectivesofnietzsche.com/ (accessed November 5, 2012). 2 Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Dover, NY: Dover Publications, 2006., 108 [ 3 ]. Wicks, Robert, “Friedrich Nietzsche,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/nietzsche/ (accessed 18 December 2012). 4 Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science., 130
5 Wicks, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/nietzsche/ (accessed 18 December 2012). [ 6 ]. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human: a Book for Free Spirits. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 1996., 119 [ 7 ]. eBooks at Adelaide, “Arthur Schopenhauer,” The University of Adelaide, http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/schopenhauer/arthur/index.html (accessed November 5, 2012)., 4 [ 8 ]. 8 JSTOR Journal Storage, “The Influence of Schopenhauer upon Friedrich Nietzsche,” The Philosophical Review, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2176260 (accessed November 5, 2012) [ 9 ]. R. J. Hollingdale, Nietzsche: the Man and His Philosophy (biography), 2 ed. (Baton Rouge,
LA: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 72-73
[ 10 ]. 10 Rohlf, Michael, “Immanuel Kant”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), available from
http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/kant/, accessed 18 December 18, 2012 11 Ibid.
[ 12 ]. 12 Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human, 116
[ 13 ]. 13 Ibid.
14 Wicks, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/nietzsche/(accessed 18 December 2012). [ 15 ]. 15 Ibid.
[ 17 ]. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human, 489