In this post we’ll briefly explore ten of Nietzsche’s key ideas as an introduction to Nietzsche’s philosophy. One of the most revolutionary thinkers in Western philosophy and intellectual history as well as a cultural critic of his era, mainly of religion and morality.
1. Apollonian & Dionysian
Nietzsche discusses these two opposing forces in The Birth of Tragedy. Apollo represents logic, harmony, and clarity (thesis) while Dionysus represents instincts, disorder, and intoxication (antithesis). Nietzsche considers him a follower of Dionysus, and the Dionysian way of life.
At the end of Twilight of the Idols or How To Philosophise with a Hammer, he states:
“I, the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus – I, the teacher of the eternal recurrence.”
2. The Three Metamorphoses: Camel, Lion, Child
In the beginning of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche dedicates a chapter on the “Three Metamorphoses”.
The spirit first becomes a camel, but not everybody can become a camel. There are many heavy things for the spirit, things that weigh upon us. A camel requires us to be greater than ourselves, and that requires some sacrifice – the strength longs for the heavy. Thus we must exercise self-discipline and renounce to our comforts.
One can then become the lion, one who wants to take on freedom, but is confronted by the mightiest of dragons, on every scale of which is a rule, every “Thou shalt” compiled since the beginning of time – the lion must fight back and oppose the dragon, saying I Will and uttering the “sacred No”. However, the lion lives in rebellion – it has yet to undergo a final and last transformation – becoming the child.
“The child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes.”
The child is the act of new creation. He can thus create his own values, giving way to the overman.
3. Slave morality and Master morality
This famous dichotomy is discussed in his Genealogy of Morals. The slave morality resents the virtues of the powerful, they turn the other cheek, and this translated to Christianity “the meek shall inherit the earth”.
The revolt of “slaves” in morals begins in the principle of ressentiment. The inferiority complex and jealousy gives way to revenge, ending up attacking the source of one’s frustration. Thanks to the self-deception of the resentful man, weakness is turned into merit.
Nietzsche was appalled by this, he calls for the master morality, which does not intend to oppress others, but rather create new values and ways of life.
They form two different value systems: master morality fits actions into a scale of “good” or “bad” consequences, whereas slave morality fits actions into a scale of “good” or “evil” intentions. He disdained both, although he clearly preferred the first.
4. Radical perspectivism
Nietzsche view does not regard all perspectives as being of equal truth or value, it holds that no one has access to an absolute view of the world cut off from perspective. Rather than to determine truth to things outside any perspective, it seeks to compare perspectives to each other.
“Everything is subjective,” you say; but even this is interpretation. The “subject” is not something given, it is something added and invented and projected behind what there is.—Finally, is it necessary to posit an interpreter behind the interpretation? Even this is invention, hypothesis.
In so far as the word “knowledge” has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings.—”Perspectivism.”
It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives and their For and Against. Every drive is a kind of lust to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm.
– The Will to Power, §481
5. God is Dead – Critique of Christianity
God is dead is one of Nietzsche’s most famous and misinterpreted concepts. It refers to a historical event in response to the decline of Christianity with the Enlightenment bringing about scientific rationality. It represents a crisis in the existing moral values opening the possibility for nihilism.
The most well-known aphorism is the parable of the madman, where Nietzsche proclaims the death of God:
“[…] God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him […]“
– The Gay Science §125
Nietzsche suggests that this question was not yet asked widely, but that before long the sense that whatever we do is hardly of any consequence will spread like a disease. This terrifying sense of weightlessness is nihilism.
One of Nietzsche’s main interests. People often mistake Nietzsche as a nihilist, which he is not – quite the opposite, he seeks to be the ultimate life affirmer (Yes-sayer). He urges us to overcome nihilism and strive through it, rather than remaining passive to it, warning us of its inevitability.
“What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism […] For some time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe […].” – The Will to Power, Preface
7. Will to Power
The will to power is the fundamental component of human identity. It is closely tied to his idea of self-overcoming. Contrasted with living for procreation, pleasure, or happiness, the will to power is the summary of all man’s struggle against his surrounding environment as well as his reason for living in it.
The concept of the will to power is also the foundation of Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence and the basis of his metaphysics. It is a dynamic force in continuous becoming and striving, manifesting itself in the encounter with obstacles. In essence, it is the main drive force in humans, aiming at the intensification of power and creativity.
8. Eternal Recurrence
The eternal recurrence supposes that you’d have to experience the same life, with the same events and same experiences, repeated for eternity. It makes its first appearance in The Gay Science, under the title “The greatest weight”, where Nietzsche raises the hypothetical question of how you would react if a demon spelled it out to you.
The idea is horrifying and paralysing as it carries the burden of the “heaviest weight” imaginable. However, it is also the ultimate affirmation of life, it is the rock the fills the emptiness and weightlessness void of nihilism. To comprehend and embrace it, requires amor fati, the love of fate and the acceptance and affirmation of the events of life.
The idea of the eternal recurrence does not suggest there to be an eternal afterlife, but rather an eternal repetition of what constitutes existence in the present world.
9. Revaluation of All Values
Nietzsche’s task was monumental, he called it a “Revaluation of All Values”, in which he seeks to offer an alternative to traditional values in the absence of a divine order and avert nihilism, so human beings might stop turning their eyes toward a supernatural realm and begin to acknowledge the value of this world. Nietzsche uses the metaphor of an open sea, which can be both exhilarating and terrifying. The people who eventually learn to create their lives anew will represent a new stage in human existence, the Overman.
10. Übermensch and The Last Man
The Übermensch or Overman is the response to the rise of nihilism, which is the consequence of the death of god or decline of Christian values and the rise of the Enlightenment.
“ Behold, I teach you the Overman! Man is something to be overcome. […] What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be that to Overman: a laughingstock or painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape […] The Overman is the meaning of the earth.
“Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Overman – a rope over an abyss […] What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal: what is lovable in man is that he is an over-going and a down-going.”
“Where is the lightning to lick you with its tongue? Where is the madness with which you should be cleansed? Behold, I show you the Overman. He is this lightning, he is this madness.“
Nietzsche believed that men could do without religion and create new values, rising up to the figure of the Übermensch. Thus, man becomes God. Man must remain faithful to earth, identifying himself as a polluted stream that must be overcome, avoiding the temptation of the banal existence of the so-called “Last Man”, the antithesis of the Übermensch, a mediocre animal without dignity and comfortably surrounded by the herd, who despises everything the Übermensch has to say.
Zarathustra suggests that humanity is becoming increasingly tame and domesticated, and will soon be able to breed only the “most contemptible” last man. Those who are all alike, like herd animals, enjoying simple pleasures and mediocrity, afraid of anything too dangerous or extreme.