The Nihilism of Contemporary Europe

While most of his contemporaries looked on the late nineteenth century with unbridled optimism, confident in the progress of science and the rise of the German state, Nietzsche saw his age facing a fundamental crisis in values. With the rise of science, the Christian worldview no longer held a prominent explanatory role in people’s lives, a view Nietzsche captures in the phrase “God is dead.” However, science does not introduce a new set of values to replace the Christian values it displaces. Nietzsche rightly foresaw that people need to identify some source of meaning and value in their lives, and if they could not find it in science, they would turn to aggressive nationalism and other such salves. The last thing Nietzsche would have wanted was a return to traditional Christianity, however. Instead, he sought to find a way out of nihilism through the creative and willful affirmation of life.

The Doctrine of the Will to Power

On one level, the will to power is a psychological insight: our fundamental drive is for power as realized in independence and dominance. This will is stronger than the will to survive, as martyrs willingly die for a cause if they feel that associating themselves with that cause gives them greater power, and it is stronger than the will to sex, as monks willingly renounce sex for the sake of a greater cause. While the will to power can manifest itself through violence and physical dominance, Nietzsche is more interested in the sublimated will to power, where people turn their will to power inward and pursue self-mastery rather than mastery over others. An Indian mystic, for instance, who submits himself to all sorts of physical deprivation gains profound self-control and spiritual depth, representing a more refined form of power than the power gained by the conquering barbarian.

On a deeper level, the will to power explains the fundamental, changing aspect of reality. According to Nietzsche, everything is in flux, and there is no such thing as fixed being. Matter is always moving and changing, as are ideas, knowledge, truth, and everything else. The will to power is the fundamental engine of this change. For Nietzsche, the universe is primarily made up not of facts or things but rather of wills. The idea of the human soul or ego is just a grammatical fiction, according to Nietzsche. What we call “I” is really a chaotic jumble of competing wills, constantly struggling to overcome one another. Because change is a fundamental aspect of life, Nietzsche considers any point of view that takes reality to be fixed and objective, be it religious, scientific, or philosophical, as life denying. A truly life-affirming philosophy embraces change and recognizes in the will to power that change is the only constant in the world.

The Perspectivist Conception of Truth

Nietzsche is critical of the very idea of objective truth. That we should think there is only one right way of considering a matter is only evidence that we have become inflexible in our thinking. Such intellectual inflexibility is a symptom of saying “no” to life, a condition that Nietzsche abhors. A healthy mind is flexible and recognizes that there are many different ways of considering a matter. There is no single truth but rather many.

At this point, interpreters of Nietzsche differ. Some argue that Nietzsche believes there is such a thing as truth but that there is no single correct perspective on it. Just as we cannot get the full picture of what an elephant is like simply by looking at its leg or looking at its tail or looking at its trunk, we cannot get a reasonable picture of any truth unless we look at it from multiple perspectives. Others, particularly those who value Nietzsche’s early essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” argue that Nietzsche believes the very idea of “truth” to be a lie. Truth is not an elephant that we must look at from multiple perspectives under this view. Rather, truth is simply the name given to the point of view of the people who have the power to enforce their point of view. The only reality is the will to power, and truth, like morality, is just another fig leaf placed on top of this reality.

Christianity as a Life-Denying Force

Throughout his work, particularly in The Antichrist, Nietzsche writes scathingly about Christianity, arguing that it is fundamentally opposed to life. In Christian morality, Nietzsche sees an attempt to deny all those characteristics that he associates with healthy life. The concept of sin makes us ashamed of our instincts and our sexuality, the concept of faith discourages our curiosity and natural skepticism, and the concept of pity encourages us to value and cherish weakness. Furthermore, Christian morality is based on the promise of an afterlife, leading Christians to devalue this life in favor of the beyond. Nietzsche argues that Christianity springs from resentment for life and those who enjoy it, and it seeks to overthrow health and strength with its life-denying ethic. As such, Nietzsche considers Christianity to be the hated enemy of life.

The Revaluation of All Values

As the title of one of his books suggests, Nietzsche seeks to find a place “beyond good and evil.” One of Nietzsche’s fundamental achievements is to expose the psychological underpinnings of morality. He shows that our values are not themselves fixed and objective but rather express a certain attitude toward life. For example, he argues that Christian morality is fundamentally resentful and life denying, devaluing natural human instincts and promoting weakness and the idea of an afterlife, the importance of which supercedes that of our present life. Nietzsche’s aim is not so much to replace Christian morality with another morality. Rather, he aims to expose the very concept of morality as being a fig leaf placed on top of our fundamental psychological drives to make them seem more staid and respectable. By exposing morality as a fiction, Nietzsche wants to encourage us to be more honest about our drives and our motives and more realistic in the attitude we take toward life. Such honesty and realism, he contends, would cause a fundamental “revaluation of all values.” Without morality, we would become an entirely different species of being, and a healthier species of being at that.

Man as Bridge Between Animal and Overman

Nietzsche contends that humanity is a transition, not a destination. We ceased to be animals when we taught ourselves to control our instincts for the sake of greater gains. By learning to resist some of our natural impulses, we have been able to forge civilizations, develop knowledge, and deepen ourselves spiritually. Rather than directing our will to power outward to dominate those around us, we have directed it inward and gained self-mastery. However, this struggle for self-mastery is arduous, and humanity is constantly tempted to give up. Christian morality and contemporary nihilism are just two examples of worldviews that express the desire to give up on life. We come to see life as blameworthy or meaningless as a way of easing ourselves out of the struggle for self-mastery. Nietzsche’s concept of the overman is the destination toward which we started heading when we first reined in our animal instincts. The overman has the self-mastery that animals lack but also the untrammeled instincts and good conscience that humans lack. The overman is profoundly in love with life, finding nothing in it to complain about, not even the constant suffering and struggle to which he willingly submits himself.

The Doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence

While it is hard to give a definitive account of the eternal recurrence, we can undoubtedly claim that it involves a supreme affirmation of life. On one level, it expresses the view that time is cyclical and that we will live every moment of our lives over and over an infinite number of times, each time exactly the same. In other words, each passing moment is not fleeting but rather echoes for all eternity. Nietzsche’s ideal is to be able to embrace the eternal recurrence and live in affirmation of this idea. In other words, we should aim to live conscious of the fact that each moment will be repeated infinitely, and we should feel only supreme joy at the prospect.

On another level, the doctrine of the eternal recurrence involves Nietzsche’s distinctive metaphysical notions. Nietzsche contends that there is no such thing as being: everything is always changing, always in a state of becoming. Because nothing is fixed, there are no “things” that we can distinguish and set apart from other “things.” All of reality is intertwined, such that we cannot pass judgment on one aspect of reality without passing judgment on all of reality. In other words, we cannot feel regret for one aspect of our lives and joy for another because these two aspects of our lives cannot properly be distinguished from one another. In recognizing that all of life is one indistinguishable swirl of becoming, we are faced with the simple choice of saying yes to all life or no to all life. Naturally, Nietzsche contends that the yes-saying attitude is preferable.