Nietzsche opens with the provocative question, “Supposing truth is a woman—what then?” Then truth would need to be cajoled and flattered, not pursued with the tactless dogmatism of most philosophers. While philosophy must overcome its dogmatic thinking, it has at least provided our culture with the tension to spring forward into something new and better. Nietzsche catalogs a number of the dogmatisms inherent in philosophy, such as the separation of ideas into binary opposites like truth and falsehood; “immediate certainties,” like Descartes’ certainty that he is thinking; and the idea of free will. Philosophy is interested in giving us insight not into truth but into the minds of the different philosophers. Everything is governed by a will to power, and in philosophy, we see great minds trying to impose their will on the world by persuading others to see the world as they see it.

The will to power is the fundamental drive in the universe. Behind truth, thought, and morality lie drives and passions that we try to mask behind a veneer of calm objectivity. What we call truth, for instance, is just the expression of our will to power, where we declare our particular perspective on reality to be objectively and universally true. Ultimately, all reality is best understood in terms of competing wills. Nietzsche praises “free spirits” who struggle to free themselves from the prejudices of others and to question their own assumptions. In particular, they will look beneath the “moral” worldview that examines people’s motives and perceive instead the “extra-moral” worldview that examines the unconscious drives that determine our expressed motives.

Nietzsche characterizes his age as atheistic but religious. He identifies the religious spirit with a willingness to sacrifice, to assert one’s power by submitting oneself to torture. In primitive societies, people sacrificed others, whereas the people of more advanced cultures sacrificed themselves through self-denial. The Christians went one step further in sacrificing God himself. While Europe is still nominally Christian, Nietzsche suggests that its faith in God has been replaced by a faith in science. He warns that this faith in science leads to nihilism and that we must find something more spiritually affirming.

Nietzsche traces our spiritual decline to the rise of Christianity, which he calls the “slave revolt in morality.” Because most people are unable to handle the darker aspects of their natures, and we would be less safe if all people gave free rein to the violence and sensuality within them, Christianity declares that only meekness and timidity are holy and condemns these other things as evil. By majority rule, Christian morality condemns us to prefer tame, peaceful lives. Even in an atheistic age, this egalitarian spirit lives on in democracy. Nietzsche longs for a generation of “new philosophers” who can rescue us from our mediocrity. These philosophers will differ markedly from the “philosophical laborers” and scholars of the universities, who work to find new knowledge but lack the creative spirit to do anything with it. Nietzsche’s new philosophers will rebel against the values and assumptions of their day and will have the strength of will and creativity to affirm something new.

Rather than thinking on egalitarian lines that the same rules apply to all people, Nietzsche argues that there is an “order of rank,” among both people and philosophies. Some people simply have stronger and more refined spirits than others, and to hold those people to the same rules is to hold them back. Pity is just a refined form of self-contempt, whereby we show preference for weakness.

As a race, we have never lost our instinct for cruelty; we have only refined it. We are unique among animals in being both creatures and creators, and the strongest among us turn our instinct for cruelty against ourselves. The creator within us reshapes the creature that we are by violently attacking its weaknesses. Suffering, then, is essential to growing stronger, and we must struggle constantly to remake ourselves by assailing our weaknesses and prejudices. However, at heart, we have certain stupid convictions and assumptions that we simply cannot change. As if to prove his point, Nietzsche launches a diatribe about how he hates women.