Zu bald alt, zu spät klug
I was a child in the sixties, aged six to sixteen, during a time when existentialism was highly celebrated as pop philosophy. Nothing could be more counter-cultural than the words, “God is dead,” or more likely to cause semi-comatose, bushy eye-browed conservatives to sit upright, bristling with indignation. Great fun, but easily diffused if we begin any consideration of Nietzsche’s work by posing the more palatable question, “Well, what if there were no God?” Nietzsche’s explanation of a “Godless” universe is both passionate and robust.
Nietzsche admits that his works may be misunderstood if they are not given a close reading with the comprehension gained from having read all his work, being able to cross-reference them easily at will. (Kaufman 1954, 311) In his fable “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, he outlines a philosophy centering on a theory of a “will to power” giving rise to the appearance of a superior being called the “übermench ” in a temporal framework of “eternal recurrence.” (Kaufman 1954, 307) The work is at once appealing because of the beautifully descriptive language and rich metaphor that is used to present the fable.
Zarathustra brings his the message to everyone and no one; to everyone that has ears to hear. God is dead, and this is the good news. “Dead are all gods: now we want the overman to live”. (Kaufman 1954, 191) Nietzsche theorized that the rise of science had at last created an atmosphere where the peoples of Europe would be able to throw off what Nietzsche had judged to be superstitions of the past, which had kept them intellectually bound. He knows that this will be a slow process and that only a few would come at first, but instead of seeing oneself as a lowly servant of the Living God, now man has the opportunity to become more, much more than anything to which he had previously aspired.
But with this proposed new state of clarity and independence comes the peril of nihilism. If there should be no God, then there is no absolute standard of value or morals. If there is no eternal destination for man, our entire existence is summed up by a seventy year period on the earth, more or less. What we say or do is statistically meaningless in the face of an endless eternity. Humanity’s greatest accomplishments, art, poetry, philosophy, will eventually succumb to the endlessness of time. No one will remain to remember or appreciate what had been accomplished. Without a sovereign God to exalt or make low or otherwise direct the paths of man, everything is based on chance, further diminishing the significance of any act. Finally, there is no one to turn to, because all are in the same situation, and frankly, all are approximately of the same ability and intelligence. It seems that nothing is left for man but apathy and desperation, perhaps even to the point of suicide. Yet Nietzsche had reached another conclusion.
In his book the “The Antichrist”, Nietzsche calls for the “revaluation of all values.” (Kaufman 1954, 656) In the light of his vitriolic attacks against Christianity and the value system which it had imposed upon Europe, it is clear that Nietzsche means for us to reject all those values and reestablish everything in the light of his new worldview. While the initial reaction for the Christian is to abhor or pity such a man, the more mature of the elect can appreciate his reasoning and perceive his motivation. When he writes “there was never more than one Christian, and he died on the Cross”, one may acknowledge the underlying truth of such a statement. Nietzsche viewed Jesus as someone whose value to man was in the way that he lived, not in his death as a sacrifice for sin. (Jaspers 1961, 20) He felt that man would have benefited by living a unique and independent life like Jesus, but instead he felt that we had created around the Christ a worthless religion dependent upon man’s frailty and error. (Kaufman 1954, 613) Nietzsche rightly despised the many earthly things that have been done in the name of Christ, as well as the existence of what Christians call the “visible church”, its ranks swollen by unthinking masses that follow along and mouth the prayers of the Illuminati. Much the same can be said for those that give no real thought to philosophy, content to mouth the words and rely on the judgment of others who purport “to know.” Nietzsche called them Zarathustra’s apes. (Kaufman 1954, 287) The actual revaluation of all values can only be done by an individual who has completely rejected all previous concepts and definitions of morality, rebelling “against the most fundamental presuppositions of life”; relying solely upon the individual will and personal instincts to make these decisions. (Nietzsche 1989, 163) For someone who perceives himself to be alone in a stinking patch of human flotsam floating in an endless sea of nothingness, there can be no more challenging philosophic goal. Such a goal can only be accomplished through the will to power.
“This world is the Will to Power—and nothing else! And you yourselves too are this Will to Power—and nothing else!” (Neitzsche 1964, [WTP] 432) It is with the will to power that Neitzsche takes his leap of faith into the metaphysical realm. (Jaspers 1965, 375) When he makes the statement that a “living thing sees above all to discharge its strength — life itself is the Will to Power”, he is defining it as the universal driving force behind everything, as opposed to the exercise of an individual will. (Neitzsche 1964, [BGE] 20) He describes a particular manifestation of it as the source of greatness emanating from a saint who is recognized a great man, which causes others to bow down. (Ibid, 71) He defines it unmistakably as “all active force.” (Ibid, 52) So it seems that Nietzsche views the will to power as the catalyst for all being and activity in the universe, for the very matter of the universe manifesting itself in the dimension of eternal recurrence.
Writing about the eternal recurrence, Kaufman quotes a passage from “Letzte Gedichte und Gedanken von H. Heine”, a book in Nietzsche’s personal library.
But what I have told you here, dear reader, that is not an event of yesterday or the day before….For time is infinite, but the things in time, the concrete bodies, are finite. They may indeed disperse into the smallest particles; but these particles, the atoms, have their determinate number, and the number of the configurations that, all of themselves, are formed out of them is also determinate. Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations that have previously existed on this earth must yet meet attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again. (Kaufman 1954, 318)
This is reminiscent of the parable of the monkeys, ascribed to noted mathematician Émile Borel.
A million monkeys typing on a million typewriters for an infinite amount of time have the possibility (but not the probability) of typing out some great work of literature. (Borel 1913, 189) This concept is not new, having been discussed by Cicero approximately forty-five years before the advent of Christ. When speaking against the idea that “solid and separate particles by their change collisions and moved only by the force of their own weight” could result in a cohesive and esthetically pleasing world, Cicero disdainfully suggests that those who believe such things should therefore also believe that the casting down an infinite number of golden letters would eventually result in the works of the great poets being spelt out. (Cicero 44BC, 161) If, as Martin Heidegger said, the eternal recurrence was Nietzche’s, “one and only thought”, it was a borrowed one. (Heidegger 1954, 50) But Nietzche’s eternal recurrence is not meant to be taken as scientific theory per se, but as a rejection of the worldviews, and especially the Christian worldview, that have as their bedrock the linear conception of time. (Hatab 1978, 123) In The Gay Science, Nietzsche talks about the idea of eternal recurrence as a concept that could either crush you emotionally with the thought of having to repeat your actions eternally or cause you to become comfortable enough with yourself and your actions to “crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal.” (Kaufman 1954, 102) This view can give an individual courage to face life and ultimately even death. Zarathustra affirms this standing before the gateway of the eternal recurrence called ‘Moment.’ when he remarks “Was that life? Well then! Once more!” (Kaufman 1954, 269) This new found courage allows will to power to manifest itself as fully in the individual as may be possible. It is by this process that man progresses to overman.
In Zarathustra’s prologue he proclaims, “Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman-a rope over an abyss…What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.” (Kaufman 1954, 127) Zarathustra is not the overman. If he were, he would not be talking to men, anymore than men speak to apes. (Ibid, 124) However, Zarathustra believes that man has the capacity to progress to the overman:
“Do you not know what is most needed by all? He that commands great things. To do great things is difficult but to command great things is even more difficult. This is what is most unforgivable in you: you have the power, and you do not want to rule.” (Kaufman 1954, 258)
Nietzsche clearly shows the way to overman in Ecce Homo:
It is at this point and nowhere else that one must make a start in order to grasp what Zarathustra wants: the type of man that he depicts, depicts reality as it is: this type is strong enough for that — , he is not estranged from it, not carried away by it; he is reality itself, he has in himself as well all its terrible and questionable things; only in this way can man have greatness… (Nietzsche 1989, 331)
Nietzsche discounts to zero all of the knowledge and moral structure that, while a comfort to weaker souls, blind their eyes to the reality of the moment. It is now that the individual is alive, and she is the prime mover for this moment and therefore the only reliable judge of what this present reality means. What vestiges of guilt or uncertainty that might remain are washed away by the eternal recurrence and emboldens her to act now, for eternity is now and what she does now is for eternity. Clear sighted and courageous she can allow the force that is everywhere around her and within her to shine forth, allowing it to carry her to greatness. Thus equipped, she is prepared to reject all moral and philosophical holds upon her, even Nietzsche’s. For those who have no sure evidence of an afterlife, a loving God or a Savior, Nietzsche presents a well developed strategy for withstanding the perils of day to day life, and the desperation of nihilism.
At the rest of us Nietzsche rails, but the violence with which he casts down his gauntlet is well meant, his desire being that we should not accept blindly the claims of the past. This is good advice. So too, is the exhortation to make the most of the moment before us. However, his claims are as much a matter of faith to a third party as the Christian’s are. Nietzsche’s cyclical view of time is as unproven as the Christian’s view of a linear eternity, or the point in existence at which time will end. Nietzsche’s claim of will to power is just as impossible to demonstrate today as is the Apostle John’s claim that by God’s will all things are created and have their being. Nietzsche was a very talented and clever man, and his writings are fascinating. Nevertheless, while Nietzsche had a very high opinion of himself, he did not claim to be an overman. Jesus did make claims far greater than that, and the Apostle John has said that on the last day we shall be like Him.
Cicero, Marcus Tullius, De natura deorum [The nature of the gods.] Translated [from the Latin] by Horace C. P. McGregor; with an introduction by J. M. Ross. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1972.
Émile Borel, “Mécanique Statistique et Irréversibilité,” J. Phys. 5e série, vol. 3, 1913, pp.189-196
Hatab, Lawrence J. 1978. Nietzsche and eternal recurrence: the redemption of time and becoming. Washington, D.C.: University of America
Heidegger, Martin. 1968. What is called thinking? Religious perspectives, v. 21. New York: Harper & Row.
Jaspers, Karl. 1961. Nietzsche and Christianity. [Chicago]: H. Regnery Co.
Jaspers, Karl. 1965. Nietzsche: an introduction to the understanding of his philosophical activity. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Kaufman, Walter. 1954. The Portable Nietzsche [New York] Viking Penguin
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. 1964. Beyond good and evil: prelude to a philosophy of the future. New York: Russell & Russell.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. 1989. On the genealogy of morals / Ecce Homo New York: Vintage Books.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Anthony M. Ludovici. 1964. The will to power: an attempted transvaluation of all values. New York: Russell & Russell.