What Nietzsche Can Teach'ya
Thus Spoke Zarathustra
If you ask someone to name some philosophers, Nietzsche will often be one of the first they think of.
Which is odd because so few people ever get around to reading him.
I knew he had some interesting ideas but I had barely any idea what they were. And I knew he was hard to read, and the couple times I had tried in the past to push myself through his books, namely Zarathustra, I wasn’t able to finish it.
But then a few references to Nietzsche came up in Straw Dogs which I covered last week, and I thought hey maybe now is the time to give it another try.
So, having gotten through Zarathustra now and combing through the online philosophy encyclopedia to try to parse some of the more confusing parts, that’s what I’ll share with you here today.
These are some of Nietzsche’s more interesting ideas to maybe make you pause and look at some of your pre-existing beliefs a little more closely.
The Death of God
Worshipping Our Highest Self (Ubermensch)
Our Motivation for Power
The Myth of Equality
The Perils of Comfort
Eternal Recurrence (Everything has Happened Before)
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The Death of God
Nietzsche opens Zarathustra with the statement that God is Dead, which leads to a central question of the book. Now that God is dead, what do we worship or strive for?
He doesn’t, of course, literally mean God died. But rather that we’ve started to move away from a Christian faith-based morality as a society, and we need to figure out what to replace it with.
Nietzsche suggest that should be a striving towards “The Superman”
And he goes so far as to say there is no soul either, there is only your body, and everything you think is separate from your body is actually contained within it:
It’s not clear in my read if he thinks we have a self-directing free will, but he does crticize the idea more explicitly in other books. So when he talks about his idea of the “will” it’s not so much a conscious free acting will as it is a natural instinctual impulse.
And the answer to this question of “what do we worship” for Nietzsche is that we should be worshipping or striving towards the highest form of ourselves, the “Ubermensch” or Uberman or Superman.
Worshipping Our Highest Self
The great sin now is not violating god’s laws, but being self satisfied. It’s not striving to be or help create the best of humanity.
As a little bit of cultural context, the era that Nietzsche lived in was moving away from a faith based morality and was trying to defend the existing precepts of Christian morality using logic and reason. But Nietzsche is trying to argue for a potentially new morality, not transferring the existing morals onto a new base. We need a new set of sins and virtues to worship.
And a lot of his new virtues and morality here focus on worshipping the best of humanity, not the mass of humanity.
But to do that, we need to recognize that striving for equality is impossible if we also want to strive to be the best.
Myth of Equality
We’re trying to enforce the old god-based morality on a godless world, but that doesn’t make sense. Nietzsche says we need to recognize these ideas like “we’re all equals” are not just wrong but are actually the opposite of being virtuous, at least in his morality.
And in addition to dispensing with this focus on equality, we also need to dispense with prioritizing a comfortable, happy life.
The Perils of Comfort
The myth of equality and neighborly love have made us individually soft, we’re more focused on balancing everyone out instead of creating the best of us, and we’re so afraid to upset anyone that we say nothing.
We’ve become soft, round, grains of sand among the masses. Instead we need to welcome fear and face greater difficulties. We need to reclaim our strength.
And we also need to dispense with the idea of “loving your neighbor.”
Don’t Love Your Neighbor
Nietzsche says that trying to always “love your neighbor” actually gets in the way of bringing about our greatest selves.
This is why he’s not a humanist… He doesn’t believe in the inherent value or specialness of humans in general, he seems to think pretty lowly of most humans. But he does want the best of us to be able to rise to the top.
And he actually argues that an essential part of that is marriage and family.
Marriage and Family
I really like this idea of marriage and children as being part of bringing out the greatest expression of yourself, and I found it somewhat surprising to see it given how individualistic the other arguments in the book tend to be.
I do like how he higlights though that a marriage and family should be to enhance the life you’ve already conquered. It shouldn’t come from fear or loneliness or desperation.
But a lot of this comes back to why do we do what we do.
Why We Do What We Do: The Will to Power
I think ethics is only useful insofar as it helps you better understand the world.
And there are two interesting forms of ethical exploration in philosophy. Basically why do we do what we do, and why should we do what we do. They’re often not the same, and while we need a good framework for the latter, it’s also good to at least try to understand the former.
Nietzche says the desire for life is insufficient to explain our behavior. Rather, we are fundamentally driven by power over ourselves, our world, and each other.
Good And Evil Don’t Exist
And as a consequence of our fundamental motivation by power, good and evil don’t exist, they’re just manifestations of the will to power. “Good” is what helps you or your tribe get and keep power, “Evil” is everything opposed to that motivation.
Everything has already happened
Finally, we get to the oddest concept in the book, the idea of eternal recurrence.
It’s not clear (and there’s debate) on whether Nietzsche thought this was actually true metaphysically, or a thought experiment.
In the potentially true sense, it’s an acknowledgement that every moment is always happening, has happened, and will happen.
Which is also a very old idea. You see it in Hindu religion, the continual birth and death of the universe, and you also see it in the Stoic physics, which also talk about a suspiciously similar cycle of birth and death of the universe.
It might be most interesting as a thought experiment:
Are you willing to live your life like this, or is this the life you want to live, if every moment of your life is always occurring. If you had to live this moment over and over again forever, would it be a good moment? Or a good life? And perhaps a characteristic of the Uberman is someone who honestly desires eternal recurrence, as Zarathustra does at the end of the novel
Thank you so much for reading.
If you learned something, please forward this to a friend.
I’ll return next week with another fascinating book to share.