Nietzsche & Nihilism

Nietzsche & Nihilism – public lecture notes (©Sjöstedt-H)

(Lecture delivered in Conway Hall, London, 2009 – published in the journal Ethical Record (vol. 114, no. 10, pp.6–10, November 2009)
– Nietzsche’s life (1844-1900):
o Born in Röcken, near Leipzig, in Prussia.
o His father (a Lutheran pastor) died in 1849, and Nz subsequently lived with his mother, grandmother, two aunts and younger sister.
o 1864: Studied Theology and Philology at University of Bonn but after one semester dropped theology as he had lost his faith.
o 1869: at the age of 24, Nz became professor of Philology at the University of Basel, where he renounced his Prussian citizenship and was thereafter officially stateless for the rest of his life.
o 1879: Nz had to leave his post due to illness. Hereafter he travelled throughout Europe developing his philosophy.
o 1889: suffered a mental breakdown, never published thereafter.
o 1900 died (unknown cause, possibly syphilis or frontotemporal dementia).
– For Nietzsche the word ‘nihilism’ had a number of meanings, which I shall in this lecture seek to clarify.
o No objective values/morals
o No objective facts
ß These two combined we can call theoretical nihilism
o Active Nihilism: the positive use of theoretical nihilism (to which Nz belonged)
o Passive Nihilism: a negative effect of theoretical nihilism (e.g. Schopenhauerian pessimism, existential angst)
o Slave morality (esp. Christianity from a Dionysian perspective)- So, we begin by examining theoretical nihilism, which will lead to the examination of the other types, and also provide a general overview of key Nietzschean concepts.Theoretical Nihilism– The famous phrase, ‘God is Dead’ begins to explain nihilism:
o This is a much misunderstood concept – it does, of course, not mean that God once lived but now is dead!
ß Nz considers the non-existence of God as a given, his philosophy focuses on the consequences of the loss of such belief.
– In his book, The Joyous Science, most of which was written in 1882, he writes,
o ‘God is dead; but given the way of men , there may be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown’ [§108].
o Then he writes about it in the parable of the madman [§125]:
ß A madman runs into a market place and cries out loud that ‘we have killed god … There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us-for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.’
– This parable heralds the coming of the nihilistic age because if one does not believe in God, if He is dead, there is no foundation for Christian morality. Moreover, in the West, Christian morality has ingrained itself so deeply into our mode of thinking that we do not even recognise its presence. Nz argues that present western morality rests on Christian morality even if it consciously rejects it – in egalitarianism, socialism, democracy, liberalism, humanism, etc.
o ‘When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality. For the latter is absolutely not self-evident’ [TI, eum,s5]
– For Nietzsche, the morals of the modern age are ultimately derived from Christianity, for example, selflessness, humility, equality, pleasure as good, pain as bad, compassion, etc. These types of morals Nz calls slave morals.
– Theoretical nihilism is the view that these, or any other, ethics are not objectively justifiable. Why:…Master and Slave Morality

– In one of his later books, ‘Beyond Good and Evil’, Nz identifies two general ethical types throughout history and the world: master and slave morality.
o Master Morality is an ideology derived from stronger typology of human: strength, pride, valour, honour, power. Historical examples include the Samurai, the Spartans, the Vikings, the Romans and similar ‘heroic cultures’.
o Slave Morality is an ideology originally derived from physically and mentally weaker cultures. Their values derive from that which makes their life more bearable: compassion, humility, selflessness, asceticism, chastity, etc.
– Due to the West’s history, we have inherited slave morality through Christianity. But as god is dead, there is no longer any reason to believe in this type of morality, though it may take centuries to register this.

– An important side issue here is that, for Nietzsche, all values, all morality, is adopted according to his concept of the will to power.
o For Nz, life is will to power: This is the fundamental drive that is life. The will to power subsumes the older (Schopenhauerian) concept of the will to survive, or the survival instinct.
ß Every living being seeks power, albeit mostly subconsciously, through gaining ‘knowledge’, exploiting environment (inc eating, ingesting), appropriating the unfamiliar to the familiar, etc.
ß The survival instinct is merely the lowest extent of the will to power: if one is not alive, one cannot gain power. Moreover, sometimes one risks one’s life in order t increase one’s power which is better explained through the will to power than will to survive.
ß Consequently, the values one has are based on what will increase one’s power (chiefly subconsciously): one believes in what is in one’s power interest.
∑ Thus those who are weak will value compassion as it elevates their power; those who have a low status will believe in equality as it heightens their power; those who have no strengths will value humility as it brings others to one’s level thereby relatively increasing one’s sense of power.

The Slave Revolt in Morals

– The genesis of western culture did not originate in Greece as much as in what is now Israel:
o Nietzsche argued that when the (master-moralist) Romans took over what is now Israel – starting in 37BC escalating to the sack of Jerusalem in 70AD, following the first of three Jewish-Roman Wars (‘the Great Revolt’), and ending with Hadrian’s expulsion of the Jews in 135AD – a number of low-status Jewish people who were now subjected to Roman rule (‘slaves’) invented Christianity as it valued the weak, the slaves, and thereby devalued the Roman masters and their master morality.
ß E.g. In Matthew 5 (Sermon on the Mount): ‘ Blessed are the meek, for the they shall inherit the earth’
ß Christianity, as a slave revolt against the Romans, introduced a morality which empowered the weak but devalued the strong.
ß ‘Suppose the abused, oppressed, suffering, unfree, those uncertain of themselves and weary should moralize: what would their moral evaluation have in common? … here it is that pity, the kind and helping hand, the warm heart, patience, industriousness, humility, friendliness come into honour … virtually the only means of enduring the burden of existence.’ [BGE§260]

– In sum, Christianity began as a power structure which empowered the weak by inhibiting the strong.
– This slave morality was justified through metaphysical means: the existence of God as a judge who blessed the weak and punished the strong.
o Indeed this is predominantly where the dichotomy ‘good and evil’ derives as we know it today.
ß But if we reject the existence of God, we thereby reject the dichotomy.
– The Romans eventually legalised Christianity in 312AD, as Constantine converted. And now of course the hub of Christianity lies within Rome.

Descriptive and Prescriptive Morality

– It is commonly objected that we do not need God in order to establish what Nietzsche calls slave morality. Utilitarians, humanists, evolutionary psychologists, contractarians, etc all make this claim: that reason and experience can justify what we call morality.

– Here it is important to make a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive/normative morality.

– If God exists, He gives us morality in two main ways:
o Through prophets to scripture (e.g 10 Commandments, Beatitudes)
o As the purpose of our lives: ‘fellowship with God’
– Nietzsche argues that with the death of belief in God, one loses these. And this includes the purpose of life.
o Without a purpose, one cannot logically say whether something is good or bad. Good – for what?
ß If we came across a mysterious cube in a forest, and I asked, “Is it good”, you would not be able to provide an answer as you would not know its purpose.
– St Thomas Aquinas (1224-74AD) exemplified this logic in his ‘Natural Law’ derived from Aristotle’s notion of the Prime Mover and ‘Final Causes’/Telos/Purpose:
o As we know that the purpose of life is fellowship with God, a person who deviates from this telos is considered bad/evil/sinful.
– But if God is dead, and therefore we have no purpose, we cannot say whether a person is good or bad, moral or immoral (like the cube).
o This led to the existentialism of the 1960s, particularly Sartre’s.

– We can describe people’s morals, and we can describe why they have them (e.g. evolution), but from that description (fact) we cannot logically deduce a prescription: that we ought to behave like that.
o We cannot derive an ought from an is, a value from a fact.
ß This was David Hume’s ‘guillotine’: the is-ought gap
ß As Hume wrote, ‘It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the world to the scratching of my finger.’
ß An ought comes from an if (telos); it cannot come from an is.

– In sum, descriptive morality can explain why people behave morally; prescriptive morality tells people how they ought to behave.
o Atheism denies the possibility of prescriptive morality.
ß E.g. It is erroneous to claim that we have evolved compassion as it helped our survival, therefore we ought to be compassionate. We could by the same logic argue that as we evolved aggression we ought to be aggressive.

– This is theoretical nihilism: values cannot be objective, only subjective.
o Nietzsche also calls this perspectivism:
ß That values are not based on objective, universal facts; but rather on one’s power perspective.
∑ From the perspective of the weak, slave morality is valuable.
∑ From the perspective of the strong, master morality is valuable.

Active and Passive Nihilism

– The next question becomes, How do we react to this death of slave values?
– Passive Nihilism: The slave type will be what Nz calls a passive nihilist: they will believe that morality IS only slave morality, and so with its death nothing remains – life is pointless.
o Examples include Schopenhauer and his pessimism, as well as those who suffer existential angst, depressives.
o This type will not be able to cope with and so not enjoy the freedom that theoretical nihilism has offered.
– Active Nihilism: the master type, or Dionysian as Nz calls him, will consider the destruction of traditional moral values as a godsend (as it were):
o They will no longer be encaged by values that were never suited to their perspective, their will to power. They will be free to invent their own values (as in master morality) whilst realising that these too are only subjective and therefore based on their perspective.
ß As well as a perspectivist, Nietzsche is therefore also known as an individualist and a free spirit (freigeist) advocate.
ß ‘Few are made for independence – it is a privilege of the strong’ [BGE§29]
– To become a true active nihilist, or free spirit, is a dangerous activity as one will constantly be at odds with the prevailing ideology of the age – therefore must be strong to enter this mode of being.
– Nietzsche identifies himself as an active nihilist: ‘That I have been a thorough-going nihilist, I have admitted to myself only recently.’ [WP§25]

– This admission can seem confusing as often Nietzsche writes against ‘nihilism’. But when he writes against it, he means passive nihilism as well as slave morality, which he in fact identifies as a nihilism because its values are non-values from the perspective of a Dionysian.
– In sum, Nietzsche criticises
o Passive nihilism and slave morality
ß And advocates
o Active nihilism and master morality

– To nuance Nietzsche further, although he believes in theoretical nihilism, he believes practical nihilism to be impossible:
o To live is to evaluate, to have no values is to be dead. For example, perception itself is valuation: the human colour spectrum is valuable to us evolutionarily in order to gain power.
o Theoretical nihilism understands this and realises that all such valuation is subjective, not objective.
ß Therefore there is no value that ought to be held by all.
ß Objective morality is impossible; subjective morality is necessary.
– Active nihilism is promoted by Nietzsche to improve mankind so to lead the way to the Overman/Übermensch: the Overman is to man, what man is to ape.

The final sentence of Nietzsche autobiography reads:
‘Have I been understood? – Dionysus against the Crucified’

©Sjöstedt-H/Ontologistics MMIX

Nietzsche 1871