An introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche
When we think of atheist philosophers and thinkers, many names come to mind. But there is one man who comes up very little while being very interesting. You might have heard the name Nietzsche somewhere in your life, but do you know who he was and what he thought? I am going to introduce you to one of the greatest freethinking minds of the 19th century: Friedrich Nietzsche.
I know my fate. One day my name will be associated with a memory of something tremendous, a crisis without equal on Earth, the most profound collision of conscience conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded and hallowed so far. Where you see ideals, I see what is human, alas, all too human.
The crisis Nietzsche was predicting was the crisis of religious faith that would grasp hold of Europe in the late 19th century. Nietzsche spoke of the death of God, and how this would change everything we had so far believed: man as the centre of the universe; life as a meaningful possession; and God as an inescapable leader. Nietzsche foretold the modern society we know as the present.
Nietzsche was born in Röcken on the 15th of October 1844. He was baptised Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. His father was a Christian preacher, his mother a housewife. A happy life it certainly was not. Nietzsche's father was diagnosed with a terminal brain disease in 1847, and he died 2 years later. Barely a year later his little brother died as well. Nietzsche's father meant everything to him, and now he had to see him suffer and die slowly. He couldn't understand how it could be fair that his father was always a servant of god, but now, when god was needed god was nowhere to be seen. Why did this god make his father --god's loyal servant-- suffer like this?
After the death of his father, Nietzsche moved with his mother and sister to Naumburg and went to a school that was known for its excellent religious education. He finished this school with a rather remarkable interest in Christianity. Nietzsche went on to study theology at Bonn university, in the hope of becoming a preacher like his father.
On Easter Sunday 1865 everything changed. He refused to attend holy communion with his family. Later that year he would give up theology to study languages. In a letter to his sister he explains his decision to leave Christianity. He writes:
Every faith is infallible. It performs what the believing person hopes to find in it. It does not offer any support for the establishment of an objective truth. Here, the ways of men divide. If you want to achieve peace of mind and happiness, have faith. If you want to be a disciple of truth, then search.
The death of God
Then, after abandoning his religion altogether, Nietzsche famously proclaimed the death of God.
God is dead, and God remains dead, for we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers comfort ourselves? What was holiest and most powerful of all the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe the blood of our hands?
Nietzsche --who had witnessed discoveries that shook the very pillars of Christianity (e.g. Darwin)-- started to despise Christianity and its moral teachings. Nietzsche knew that his new way of thinking would undermine the Christian foundation of Western society. He realized that the world could operate without the need of a divine authority or intervention.
In aphorism 55 and 56 of Beyond good and evil, Nietzsche says that the concept of a god has been sacrificed on the altar of physics, matter and motion and objective truth.
Nietzsche declared Christian and Jewish traditions and values to be slave moralities. In a slave morality values emerge out of the concepts good and evil. A slave morality only exists to ease the pain of existence. Nietzsche claims that a slave morality gives people the false hope that everyone is equal, which is therefore preventing them from self-hatred. Nietzsche notes that not everyone is equal. Some are more intelligent, more beautiful or more successful than others. A slave morality only served one purpose: destroying the correct sense of inferiority its followers would experience without it.
Nietzsche claims that the modernisation of Europe will eventually clash with Christianity as more and more people are no longer ashamed of their uniqueness. He says that the idea of morality-for-all is harmful to society and preventing the best and the brightest of this world to progress, leaving the common rabble behind.
After this, he proclaimed that he himself was the anti-christ, the progressor, the first man to set foot on new intellectual territory.
Illusion of truth
Nietzsche says that if there is any truth at all, we will never be able to perceive it. For he says there is no truth, only interpretations, like our interpretation is human, all too human. Us being human limits our ability to perceive things as they are. We perceive them in human terms, making ultimate objectivity impossible and truth an illusion.
Nietzsche supported individualism and free thought. In his book titled 'Human, all too human' subtitled 'A book for free spirits' he proclaimed that every human being should think for themselves. He wrote:
And so onwards along a path of wisdom with a hearty tread, hearty confidence. However you may be, be your own source of experience. Throw off your discontent about your nature. Forgive yourself your own self. You have it in your power to merge everything you have lived through, false starts, errors, delusions, passions, your loves and your hopes into your goal, with nothing left over.
He wanted everyone to free themselves from old traditions and opinions that were not truly theirs. He challenged people to dare to think different, to question that which had not been questioned for centuries.
He sees himself as the first of his kind, the lonely wanderer in an untouched and undiscovered world of new ideas, values and perceptions. Nietzsche says that a man can only find his true self once he has ditched limitations like god and religion. Citing Nietzsche on this ''It is my fate that I must be the first decent human being.''
Then, in 1889 Nietzsche was found in his home in a state of dementia. He was taken to a clinic and declared clinically insane. His sister took care of him until he died on the 25th of August 1900. Many still believe that Nietzsche's sudden turn for insanity was the result of him discovering something he was not ready for. We will never know what went on in Nietzsche's mind during those final and crucial days.
This is just a brief summary of Nietzsche's life and ideas. If you are interested in Nietzsche's ideas I encourage you to read his books, especially 'The Anti-christ' and 'Thus spake Zarathustra'.
For another great piece on Nietzsche, click here