Friedrich Nietzsche

As the Enlightenment came to a close at the beginning of the 19th century, thinkers faced an entirely new world undergoing a massive transition away from traditional norms. Religion was under attack by science, monarchy by liberalism and socialism, and work by the industrial revolution. 

Friedrich Nietzsche Friedrich Nietzsche

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    Many major figures appear during this time such as Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Each of these thinkers was trying to make sense of this new world and it was Friedrich Nietzsche who decided to dive into the massive hole science had made in religious belief and what the consequences of this endeavour would be for society.

    Friedrich Nietzsche biography

    Friedrich Nietzsche's biography begins in in Röcken, Germany on October 15, 1844. Unfortunately in 1849 when Friedrich was five years old his father, a devout Lutheran pastor, passed away from a brain ailment. To make matters worse, his brother died 6 months later at the age of two.

    From a young age, Nietzsche showed a strong intellect and a great interest in several subjects including music, theology, philosophy, and language. Nietzsche learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and French, composed music, wrote poetry, and was a vigorous reader.

    After moving around some as a child and excelling in school Nietzsche was accepted to the University of Bonn in 1864 where he began his studies in theology and philology with the intent of becoming a minister. However, Nietzsche quickly grew disenchanted with his religious beliefs and abandoned his theological studies in favour of philology.

    Friedrich Nietzsche, a portrait of Nietzsche, StudySmarterFig. 1, Portrait of Nietzsche, 1964

    After completing his degree in philology at the University of Bonn Nietzsche was offered a full professorship in classical philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland at the age of 24. He worked at the university until 1879 at which point he retired because of medical issues which had plagued him his entire life and increased in severity with age. In 1889 Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown while in Italy and was never able to recover from it, he would remain in the care of his mother until her death and would then be taken care of by his sister Elizabeth until he died in August of 1900.

    Friedrich Nietzsche Existentialism

    Friedrich Nietzsche and the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard are largely credited with starting the school of existentialism within philosophy. Existentialism, as it was formulated in the mid and end 19th century was born out of the rapidly declining belief in religion throughout Europe, specifically Christianity. Before moving into Nietzsche's discussion of existential questions we must first take a look at what existentialism is.

    Existentialism asks questions such as, is there a purpose in life? Is there any meaning embedded in the universe? Does God exist? An existential answer to the first two questions would be a resounding no. For existentialism life is void of any preordained purpose, there is no destiny or greater reason for existence built into the universe. Instead, we have to create purpose and meaning for ourselves.

    The term "an existential crisis" indicates that someone is experiencing a crisis of meaning.

    Friedrich Nietzsche and religion

    Friedrich Nietzsche has some very strong views on religion. If we think back to those three questions we asked earlier; is there a purpose in life? Is there any meaning embedded in the universe? Does God exist?

    For the third question, does God exist, the answers vary greatly in existentialism because it allows for the existence or non-existence of God. For Søren Kierkegaard, Christianity was the best way to answer these questions but for Nietzsche;

    God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it. -Nietzsche

    This quote is from Human, All Too Human, one of Nietzsche's first major work and clearly indicates a massive problem settling into Western culture. Nietzsche was no fan of Christianity and much of his work places Christianity (and religion more generally) in its crosshairs. However, Nietzsche did not do this simply because he disliked religion but because he saw a major cultural shock coming in the future caused by the enlightenment's erosion of religious truth in favour of scientific truth.

    The above quote reflects Nietzsche's fear, notice how the tone and wording is not celebratory, but worried and grave. The "death of God" also meant the death of meaning, purpose, Christian morality (which Nietzsche greatly disliked), and a story for understanding humanity and its actions. The rapid reduction in religious truth in favour of scientific truth meant that people had to accept scientific truth which Nietsche argued is fundamentally incapable of providing the same psychological security as religious truth.

    Thus spoke Zarathustra, the cover of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, StudySmarterFig. 1, The cover of Thus Spoke Zarathustra

    The second response to a universe with no meaning built into it and destined for death is something known as nihilism.


    Before jumping into a discussion of Nietzsche and nihilism let's start with a basic definition of the term.

    Nihilism is the rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless.

    It is not uncommon to hear Nietzsche's name associated with nihilism or even the claim that Nietzsche himself was a nihilist, but this is not the case. Nietzsche's work is in many ways an antidote to nihilism as he thought that nihilism was the direction the entire West was heading. As religion began to crack and give way to scientific truth Nietzsche argued that all of civilisation would be sent into a nihilistic world view and he wrote for a future-facing this crisis of meaning and looking for answers. He specifically points out that his work was meant for future generations and not his own, which he believed would not understand him.

    Nietzsche welcomes nihilism only in so far as it is a fertile ground for the creation of meaning and argues to his readers that instead of creating new gods, they should create new values grounded in the real world. Nietzsche saw no point in creating a system of morals and values based on a God or something which is not on Earth. For him, humanity always gave the best of itself to the service of gods and religion as opposed to giving its best to humanity and the improvement of the human being.

    He further suggested that the suffering which will spring from this societal existential crisis should be embraced and celebrated. Nietzsche recognised that a life void of meaning not only led to suffering which would have to be embraced and transformed into something else but that humans would find new things to replace God with:

    God is dead, but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will still be shown.

    For Nietzsche, this shadow on the wall was the state and in the next section, we will explore, through Nietzsche's own words, what he meant by this.

    Friedrich Nietzsche quotes

    Nietzsche had an incredibly pessimistic view of the state and also greatly disagreed with the ideas of social contract theorists who argued that the state came into existence through a kind of contract between the governed and those who govern.

    I used the word "State": my meaning is self-evident, namely, a herd of blonde beasts of prey, a race of conquerors and masters, which with all its warlike organisation and all its organising power pounces with its terrible claws on a population, in numbers possibly tremendously superior, but as yet formless, as yet nomad. Such is the origin of the "State." That fantastic theory that makes it begin with a contract is, I think, disposed of.

    In this quote, Nietzsche is arguing that it was an act of violence by a few against an unorganised populace that brought the state into existence. For Nietzsche, a strong few with no obstruction can subjugate an entire population against its will, as was the case with Germany only 30 years after his death.

    A state, is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly lieth it also; and this lie creepeth from its mouth: "I, the state, am the people.

    This quote reflects Nietzsche's opinion that the state will create people in its image as religion did throughout history. When he says "I, the state, am the people" he is saying that the state sees itself as a representation of the people.

    Think about Russia for a moment, is Putin or the Russian state a true reflection of the Russian people? Would we argue that the people of Russia are the same thing as the Russian state which invaded another country?

    Everything will it give YOU, if YE worship it, the new idol: thus it purchaseth the lustre of your virtue, and the glance of your proud eyes.

    Here Nietzsche is pointing out that if the individual obeys the state as the individual obeyed God the state will give the individual something in return. Where religion generally offers some form of eternal existence in heaven, the state offers some type of lifestyle or a utopian dream. Nazi Germany is a great example of this, in return for total obedience to the Nazi state, the state would provide a new way of existence, a perfect life that is unparalleled but only once certain conditions were met that the people had to work towards.

    Friedrich Nietzsche, photo of Friedrich Nietzsche, Study SmarterFig. 3, Friedrich Nietzsche towards the end of his life after his mental breakdown

    Friedrich Nietzsche - Key takeaways

    • Nietzsche argued that the death of the idea of god was a result of the scientific truths born out of the Enlightenment.
    • As a result of the death of God Nietzsche believed that the West would fall into intense nihilism
    • Nietzsche thought that the state would be the thing that replaced belief in God.
    • Nietzsche argued against the idea that the state was created through a contract and instead argued that it was a creation of force by a strong minority against a weak majority.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Friedrich Nietzsche

    What is Friedrich Nietzsche's main philosophy?

    Nietzsche's philosophy discusses the death of God and overcoming nihilism.

    What is Nietzsche's most famous work? 

    Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

    What did Friedrich Nietzsche believe in? 

    The will to power.

    What is Nietzsche most known for? 

    Nietzsche is known for a lot, but in regard to views on existentialism and religion, his statement that "God is dead" has been very influential.  

    What is death according to Friedrich Nietzsche? 

    An eternal recurrence of the same. 

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