Nietzsche & Existentialism

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Nietzsche & Existentialism

Christianity says that everything in this world is less important than that of the “next” after death.

And besides, God is dead!

We must surpass this limiting idea and create meaning for ourselves.

It says we should turn away from what seems important in this life, and try to transcend it.

Christianity’s idea of “man” undermines us.

But in doing this we turn away from life itself.

Nietzsche’s idea that man is something to be surpassed appears in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, perhaps his most famous book. It was written in three parts in 1883-1884, with a fourth part added in 1885. The German philosopher used it to launch a sustained attack on the history of Western thought. He targets three linked ideas in particular: first, the idea we have of “man” or human nature; second, the idea we have of God; and third, the ideas we have about morality, or ethics. Elsewhere, Nietzsche writes about philosophizing “with a hammer,” and here he certainly attempts to shatter many of the most cherished views of the Western philosophical tradition, especially in relation to these three things. He does so in a style that is astonishingly hot-headed and fevered, so that at times the book seems closer to prophecy than philosophy. It was written quickly, with Part I taking him only a few days to set down on paper. Even so, while Nietzsche’s book does not have the calm, analytical tone that people have perhaps come to expect of philosophical works, the author still succeeds in setting out a remarkably consistent and hugely challenging vision.

Zarathustra descends

The name of Nietzsche’s prophet, Zarathustra, is an alternative name for the ancient Persian prophet Zoroaster. The book begins by telling us that at the age of 30, Zarathustra goes to live in the mountains. For ten years, he delights in the solitude, but one dawn, he wakes to find that he is weary of the wisdom he has accumulated alone on the mountain. So he decides to descend to the market place to share this wisdom with the rest of humankind.

On the way down to the town, at the foot of the hill, he meets with an old hermit. The two men have already met, ten years before, when Zarathustra first ascended the mountain. The hermit sees that Zarathustra has changed during the past decade: when he climbed the mountain, the hermit says Zarathustra carried ashes; but now, as he descends, he is carrying fire.

Then the hermit asks Zarathustra a question: why are you going to the trouble of sharing your wisdom? He advises Zarathustra to stay in the mountains, warning him that nobody will understand his message. Zarathustra then asks a question: what does the hermit do in the mountains? The hermit replies that he sings, weeps, laughs, mumbles, and praises God. On hearing this, Zarathustra himself laughs. Then he wishes the hermit well and continues on his way down the mountain. As he goes, Zarathustra says to himself, “How can it be possible! This old hermit has not yet heard that God is dead.”

Behold the Superman

The idea of the death of God may be the most famous of all Nietzsche’s ideas, and it is closely related both to the idea that man is something to be surpassed and to Nietzsche’s distinctive understanding of morality. The relationship between these things becomes clear as the story continues.

When he reaches the town, Zarathustra sees that there is a crowd gathered around a tightrope walker who is about to perform, and he joins them. Before the acrobat has a chance to walk across his rope, Zarathustra stands up. It is at this point he says, “Behold! I teach you the Superman!” He continues by telling the crowd the real point he wishes to convey: ‘Man is something to be surpassed…”. Zarathustra follows this with a long speech, but when he gets to the end, the crowd only laughs, imagining that the prophet is just another showman, or perhaps even a warm-up performer for the tightrope-walker.

In opening his book in this unusual way, Nietzsche seems to be betraying his own unease with the reception that his philosophy will receive, as if he is afraid that he will be seen as a philosophical showman without anything real to say. It we want to avoid making the same mistake as the crowd gathered around Zarathustra, and actually understand what Nietzsche is saying, it is necessary to explore some of Nietzsche’s core beliefs.

Overturning old values

Nietzsche believes that certain concepts have become inextricably entangled: humankind, morality, and God. When his character Zarathustra says that God is dead, he is not simply launching an attack upon religion, but doing something much bolder. “God” here does not only mean the god that philosophers talk about or the religious pray to; it means the sum total of higher values that we might hold. The death of God is not just the death of a deity; it is also the death of all the so-called higher values that we have inherited.

One of the central purposes of Nietzsche’s philosophy is what he calls the “revaluation of all values,” an attempt to call into question all of the ways that we are accustomed to thinking about ethics and the meanings and purposes of life. Nietzsche repeatedly maintains that in doing so he is setting out a philosophy of cheerfulness, which, although it overturns everything we have thought up until now about good and evil (that the “good” are rewarded after life and the “evil” are punished after life), nevertheless seeks to affirm life. He claims that many of the things that we think are “good” are, in fact, ways of limiting, or of turning away from life.

We may think it is not “good” to make a fool of ourselves in public, and so resist the urge to dance joyfully in the street. We may believe that the desires of the flesh are sinful, and so punish ourselves when they arise. We may stay in mind-numbing jobs, not because we need to, but because we feel it is our duty to do so. Nietzsche wants to put an end to such life- denying philosophies, so that humankind can see itself in a different way.

Blaspheming against life

After Zarathustra proclaims the coming of the Superman, he swiftly moves to condemn all religion. In the past, he says, the greatest blasphemy was to blaspheme against God; but now the greatest blasphemy is to blaspheme against life itself. This is the error that Zarathustra believes he made upon the hillside: in turning away from the world, and in offering up prayers to a God who is not there, he was sinning against life.

The history behind this death of God, or loss of faith in our higher values, is told in Nietzsche’s essay, How the “Real World” at last Became a Myth, which was published in Twilight of the Idols. The essay carries a subtitle “History of an Error,” and it is an extraordinarily condensed one-page history of Western philosophy. The story begins, Nietzsche says, with the Greek philosopher Plato and is included below:


History of an Error
By: Friedrich Nietzsche

  1. The real world attainable for the wise man, the pious man, the virtuous man—he lives in it, he is it.
    (Most ancient forms of the idea, relatively clever, simple, convincing. Paraphrase of the proposition: ‘I, Plato, am the truth.’)

  2. The real world unattainable for now, but promised to the wise man, the pious man, the virtuous man

(‘to the sinner who repents’) (Progress of the idea: it becomes more cunning, more insidious, more incomprehensible—it becomes a woman, it becomes Christian…)

  1. The real world unattainable, unprovable, unpromisable, but the mere thought of it a consolation, an obligation, an imperative.
    (The old sun in the background, but seen through mist and scepticism; the idea becomes sublime, pale, Nordic, Königsbergian.)

  1. The real world—unattainable? At any rate unattained. And since unattained also unknown. Hence no consolation, redemption, obligation either: what could something unknown oblige us to do? …
    (Break of day. First yawn of reason. Cock-crow of positivism.)

  1. The ‘real world’—an idea with no further use, no longer even an obligation—an idea become useless, superfluous, therefore a refuted idea: let us do away with it!
    (Broad daylight; breakfast; return of bon sens and cheerfulness; Plato’s shameful blush; din from all free spirits.)

  1. The real world—we have done away with it: what world was left? the apparent one, perhaps? … But no! with the real world we have also done away with the apparent one!
    (Noon; moment of the shortest shadow; end of the longest error; pinnacle of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.)

The real world
Plato divided the world into an “apparent” world that appears to us through our senses, and a “real” world that we can grasp through intellect. For Plato, the world we perceive through the senses is not “real” because it is changeable and subject to decay (our senses can be flawed, and we can lose our eyesight/ hearing/ etc. as we age). Plato suggests that there is also an unchanging, permanent “real world” that can be attained with the help of the intellect. This idea comes from Plato’s study of mathematics. The form or idea of a triangle, for example, is eternal and can be grasped by the intellect. We know that a triangle, for example, is a three-sided, two-dimensional figure whose angles add up to 180 degrees, and that this will always be true, whether anyone is thinking about it or not and however many triangles exist in the world. On the other hand, the triangular things that do exist in the world (such as sandwiches, pyramids, and triangular shapes drawn on a chalkboard), are triangular insofar as they are reflections of this idea of form of the triangle.
Influenced by mathematics in this way, Plato proposed that the intellect can gain access to a whole world of Ideal Forms, which is permanent and unchanging, whereas the senses have access only to the world of appearances. So, for example, if we want to know about goodness, we need to have an intellectual appreciation of the Form of Goodness, of which the various examples of goodness in the world are only reflections. This is an idea that has had far-reaching consequences for our understanding of the world; not least because, as Nietzsche points out, this way of dividing up the world makes the “real world” of the intellect the place where everything of value resides. In contrast, it makes the “apparent world” of the senses a world that is, relatively speaking, unimportant.
Christian values
Nietzsche traces the fortunes of this tendency to split the world into two and finds that the same idea appears within Christian thought. In place of the “real world” of Plato’s Forms, Christianity substitutes an alternative “real world”; a future world of heaven that is promised to the virtuous. Nietzsche believes that Christianity views the world we live in now as somehow less real than heaven, but in this version of the “two worlds” idea the “real world” is attainable, albeit after death and on condition that we follow Christian rules in this life. The present world is devalued, as it is with Plato, except insofar as it acts as a stepping stone to the world beyond. Nietzsche claims that Christianity asks us to deny the present life in favor of the promise of a life to come.
Both the Platonic and Christian versions of the idea that the world is divided into a “real” and an “apparent” one have profoundly affected our thoughts about ourselves. The suggestion that everything of value in the world is somehow “beyond” the reach of this world leads to a way of thinking that is fundamentally life-denying. As a result of this Platonic and Christian heritage, we have come to see the world we live in as a world that we should resent and disdain, a world from which we should turn away, transcend, and certainly not enjoy. But in doing so, we have turned away from life itself in favor of a myth or an invention, an imagined “real world” that is situated elsewhere. Nietzsche calls priests of all religions “preachers of death,” because their teachings encourage us to turn from this world, and from life to death. But why does Nietzsche insist that God is dead? To answer this, we must look to the work of the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose ideas are critical to understanding the philosophy behind Nietzsche’s work.
Philosophy’s longest error
Once we have dispensed with the idea of the “real world,” the long-held distinction between the “real world” and the “apparent world” begins to break down. In How the “Real World” at last Became a Myth, Nietzsche goes on to explain this as follows: “We have abolished the real world; what world is left? The apparent world, perhaps?...But no! With the real world we have also abolished the apparent world.” Nietzsche now sees the beginning of the end of philosophy’s “longest error”: its infatuation with the distinction between “appearance” and “reality,” and the idea of two worlds. The end of this error, Nietzsche writes, is the zenith of mankind—the high point of all humanity. It is at this point—in an essay written six years after Thus Spake Zarathustra—Nietzsche writes “Zarathustra begins.”
This is a key moment for Nietzsche because when we grasp the fact that there is only one world, we suddenly see the error that had put all values beyond this world. We are then forced to reconsider all our values and even what it means to be human. And when we see through these philosophical illusions, the old idea of “man” can be surpassed. The Superman is Nietzsche’s vision of a fundamentally life-affirming way of being. It is one that can become the bearer of meaning not in the world beyond, but here; Superman is “the meaning of the Earth.” It is the Übermensch.
Creating ourselves
Nietzsche’s writings did not reach a large audience in his lifetime, so much so that he had to pay for the publication of the final part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra himself. But around 30 years after his death in 1900, the idea of the Superman fed into the rhetoric of Nazism through Hitler’s readings of Nietzsche’s work. Nietzsche’s ideas about the Superman, and particularly his call for an eradication of the Jewish-Christian morality that held sway throughout Europe would have been attractive to Hitler as validation for his own aims. But where Nietzsche seemed to be searching for a return to the more rustic, life-affirming values of pagan Europe, Hitler took his writings as an excuse for unbridled violence and transgression on a grand scale. The consensus amongst scholars is that Nietzsche himself would have been horrified by this turn of events. Writing in an era of extraordinary nationalism, patriotism, and colonial expansion, Nietzsche was one of the few thinkers to call these assumptions into question. At one point in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he makes it clear that he considers nationalism a form of alienation or failure. “Only where the state ends,” Zarathustra says, “there begins the human being who is not superfluous.”

Nietzsche’s open-ended idea of human possibility was important to many philosophers in the period following World War II. His ideas about religion and the importance of self-evaluation can be traced especially in the work of succeeding existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre. Like Nietzsche’s Superman, Sartre says that we must each define the meaning of our own existence. Nietzsche’s damning criticisms of the Western philosophical tradition have had a huge impact not only on philosophy, but also on European and world culture, and they went on to influence countless artists and writers in the 20th century.


Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche were two of the first philosophers considered fundamental to the existentialist movement, though neither used the term "existentialism" and it is unclear whether they would have supported the existentialism of the 20th century. They focused on subjective human experience rather than the objective truths of mathematics and science (like Plato), which they believed were too detached or observational to truly get at the human experience. Like Pascal, they were interested in people's quiet struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of life and the use of diversion to escape from boredom. Unlike Pascal, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche also considered the role of making free choices, particularly regarding fundamental values and beliefs, and how such choices change the nature and identity of the chooser. Kierkegaard's knight of faith and Nietzsche's Ubermensch are representative of people who exhibit Freedom, in that they define the nature of their own existence. Nietzsche's idealized individual invents his or her own values and creates the very terms they excel under. By contrast, Kierkegaard, opposed to the level of abstraction in Hegel, and not nearly as hostile (actually welcoming) to Christianity as Nietzsche, argues through a pseudonym that the objective certainty of religious truths (specifically Christian) is not only impossible, but even founded on logical paradoxes. Yet he continues to imply that a leap of faith is a possible means for an individual to reach a higher stage of existence that transcends and contains both an aesthetic and ethical value of life. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were also precursors to other intellectual movements, including postmodernism, and various strands of psychology. However, Kierkegaard believed that an individual should live in accordance with his or her thinking.

A basic definition of existentialism: a strain of philosophy that says people must create meaning for themselves, rather than receive meaning that’s handed down to them by a deity or by some religious or philosophical doctrine.

“Existence precedes essence” is a well-known way of summing up existentialism. People exist as things (infants, children, adolescents—even adults) long before they create themselves as entities capable of acting with a sense of purpose in the world.

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