Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
by Thomas S. Vernon
"Is man only a blunder of God's, or God only a blunder of Man's?"
We use the generic "creatures" in referring to our fellow humans as well as to our planet's other life-forms. This is awkward for a secular humanist, since the concept of a creature implies that of a Creator, a notion that we have abandoned. In re-reading some of Nietzsche recently, I came across a passage that helped me to resolve this difficulty. In Part Four of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche, as Zarathustra, exclaims, "You creators, you higher men!"
This strikes a theme, later picked up by Sartre and other existentialists, that you and I create ourselves as we go along. I have long felt that the expression, "to find oneself," is misdirected; it gives the false impression that one has a self waiting to be ferreted out, when, in reality, the self is not found, but made. Yet the question remains, By whom? Not by God, whose funeral Nietzsche observed ("What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?"). What Nietzsche and Emerson both saw and Sartre apparently did not is that the creation of the self is something the individual rarely has a hand in; in the great majority of cases, the maker is society, culture, civilization.
So we humans are "creatures" after all, creatures of the social forces and circumstances that produced us and that circumscribe us. Still, there is the possibility, at least, that the creature can become a creator, and this is what I take to be the major theme of Nietzsche's writings. We cannot create ourselves de novo, of course, or ex nihilo; we must start with what we have and create to the extent that we are able.
The first step -- or should we say, rather, series of steps, for it is likely to be a gradual and interrupted process -- is to become aware of our imprisonment, of the fact that we are imprisoned. Thus Emerson writes, "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members." And Nietzsche, in The Dawn: "The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently," and "The snake that cannot shed its skin perishes. So do the spirits who are prevented from changing their opinions."
When we read such writers as Mill, Emerson, and Nietzsche, we observe men who have become aware of their creaturehood and are determined to become creators of themselves. The figure of a "second birth" applies here, but it is totally unlike the Pauline rebirth, which is merely an exchange of one form of slavery for another. The "higher man" of whom Nietzsche speaks plots his own course.
No one steps naked into this uncharted world; we still wear much of the mental clothing we inherited. What happens is that we examine our surroundings; that is to say, we begin to look with a critical eye at the cultural matrix in which we find ourselves. Can a microorganism perceive the culture in which it was grown? Some human organisms do, and they can then become, in part at least, creators rather than creatures.
It is only by deliberate act of the imagination that we can separate ourselves from our culture and undertake what has become an organic part -- perhaps the major part -- of ourselves. The culture itself is blind; only its creatures are able to see, but they must have the courage to look. Those who do become the eyes of civilization and are no longer mere creatures.
When Nietzsche began to look, what he was made him sick. I believe it was he who initiated the use of the term "nausea" as a metaphor. He speaks of sitting at a table where other people are eating food that he cannot. This was literally true for Nietzsche, who was obliged by precarious health to live on a very restricted diet, but he uses the figure to characterize his feeling toward the culture of his time. Today an intelligent person observing his fellow humans gorging themselves on a diet of television, video cassettes, supermarket "literature," moronic "gospel music," screaming car radios, and other depravities might wonder if Nietzsche's time could possibly have been as bad.
Nietzsche was born in Germany in 1844. His father was a Lutheran minister whose character may help explain why religion was one of the features of his culture that he found most offensive. Nietzsche is quoted as having written, "When one has not had a good father, one must create one." He did not, however, turn to a "heavenly" father to compensate for the shortcomings of his mother's husband. On the contrary, he saw this feature of religion as an infantilism that we must outgrow. His attack on Christianity is probably the most incisive and devastating that has ever been carried out. Walter Kaufmann writes: "Nietzsche is one of the first thinkers with a comprehensive philosophy to complete the break with religion."
It seems that the project of self-emancipation must begin, at least, with acts of repudiation, with saying, "This I do not like, this is bad, this I reject." The see-er begins as a rebel, a destroyer. The experience may be compared to a housecleaning, when painful decisions must be made as to what is rubbish and what is not. It may also be likened to an internal civil war, in whose aftermath a successful reconstruction is uncertain. This necessary destructive beginning is difficult to do well; it takes clear, hard thinking, as well as strength of will. Nietzsche does it magnificently. Yet one must read him with a discriminating eye. Kaufmann writes: "What distinguishes Zarathustra is the profusion of 'sapphires in the mud.'" I think this is true of all of Nietzsche's works.
Perhaps the most damning indictment of Christianity is his charge that it suppresses the "noble" virtues and exalts the "slave" virtues. Such important virtues as pride, courage, and wisdom have been condemned by Christianity and replaced by the virtues of humility, fortitude, and prudence, which are traits that characterize a good slave. Thus what is truly noble in humankind has been condemned as sinful, and we have been encouraged to cultivate "virtues" that are in reality sins against our better selves. Nietzsche explains all this and more in The Antichrist and Beyond Good and Evil.
People not willing to search for sapphires in the mud have found much in Nietzsche to complain of. Naturally. And some, the precursors and followers of Hitler, have used only the mud to construct a monstrous "superman" philosophy based, not on a will to power, but on a will to kill. Too many interpreters of Nietzsche have failed to see that his "will to power" refers to an inner power, a power to affirm oneself, to be what Emerson meant by "self-reliant." This is the positive, the constructive aspect of Nietzsche's philosophy that complements its nihilistic aspect.
Nietzsche's last public act was to throw his arms protectively about a horse that was being flogged by its master, whereupon he collapsed and had to be carried home. When he came to, he wrote a few brief, almost incoherent letters, and shortly after this became quite insane, and died a year-and-a-half later, in 1900. One of these letters, written to his friends, the Overbecks, reveals more than his madness:
To friend Overbeck and wife. Although you have so far demonstrated little faith in my ability to pay, I yet hope to demonstrate that I am somebody who pays his debts -- for example, to you. I am having all the anti-Semites shot.
Contrary to popular belief, Nietzsche was profoundly opposed to the anti-semitism of many of his fellow Germans. His sister Elizabeth's anti-semitism and marriage to a notorious anti-semite, Bernhard Forster, was a major cause of his alienation from her.
Many of the sapphires from Nietzsche's writings have been preserved as well-known aphorisms. Here are a few:
When stepped on, a worm doubles up. That is clever. In that way he lessens the probability of being stepped on again. In the language of morality: humility.
The principle of "Christian love": in the end it wants to be paid well.
The old God invents war, he divides the peoples, he fixes it so men will annihilate each other (priests have always required wars).
"Faith" means not wanting to know what is true.
Whoever despised himself still esteems the despiser within himself.
The distinguished type of human being … knows that he is the something which gives honor to objects; he creates values.