I’m reading Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche. It’s a book less focused on an in-depth examination of his philosophy, but more on how Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas have shaped American culture.
There are mixed feelings with a character like Nietzsche. One one hand, this intense German known to “philosophize with a hammer,” wielded it without regard for anything that stood in his path. He criticized notions of objective truth, and since I’m not sufficiently read in Nietzschean philosophy — and it actually seems that people who are remain divided — I’m not sure whether or not he believed in any objective truth at all.
Some might say his truth was his will to power or the idea of the Übermensch (beyond man, superman, or overman), but nonetheless, there’s something freeing about a figure who is willing to attack all idols and leave no ideas without their due criticism and investigation.
There’s an empowerment anyone can feel from reading Nietzsche. He’s the one where these famous quotes come from.
- “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
- “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
- “No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!”
But once you depart from the empowering, self-affirming Nietzsche, you run into the other side of him. Because there is something sinister, even unnerving about the man. It could be because — how much can you remove a person’s psychology from their philosophy? He himself said, “It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy up till now has consisted of — namely, the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious autobiography…”
Whether or not a person can be separate from the claims they arrive at is a conversation for another day. In the case of Nietzsche, his is a philosophy known for the “Death of God” scene, a grizzly passage that should leave any reasonable person uncomfortable after reading it. And this godless philosopher himself didn’t go out so well. He went mad. And then, his sister, who was caring for him while he was sick, shared his work without his permission to the Nazis.
Nietzsche was no fan of nationalism, and he also was not an anti-Semite or militarist. He was not a fascist or a Nazi. His book The Will to Power, which greatly influenced the Nazis, wasn’t even completed when his sister distorted, edited to her agenda, and shared it with them.
The Genius of the Modern World series on Netflix has an episode on Nietzsche, and there we learn that it’s possible he never wanted any form of The Will to Power to be published. He had even written grocery items on his notes for the book, something that tells us a bit about the state it was in. To use it prior to his completion, and against his purposes for Nazi propaganda like his sister did, needs to be acknowledged by anyone who learns of his philosophy.
But Nietzsche’s philosophy being hijacked and used against his will almost ends up being beside the point. What’s sinister and ruthless about his thinking is that it has just the sort of potential to be manipulated and used for ill intent.
He was an ardent critic of Christianity, a religion that turned a victim into the Messiah, the Savior of humanity. And if you’re familiar with the argument that Tom Holland makes in Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, all the ideals that we value from the western world derive precisely from our Christian inheritance. Our exaltation and egalitarian care for victims comes from the Christian narrative (you can even call it a myth if you’d like), because Christ, the ultimate victim, was Himself God. This religion is the one that gave us the values of the golden rule and told us that the last shall be first.
These Christian ideals — which sprang out of the Judaic tradition — were only possible because of the Apostle Paul, the Jewish man who was a Christian persecutor but turned into a messenger of the Christian Gospel. In the book of Romans, Paul famously put a stamp on the idea that all people are equal when he said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
To be precise, the metaphysical claim of equality only comes through belief in Christ. But nonetheless, this was the claim that the western world adopted as a universal truth. Western liberalism simply decided to drop all Christian metaphysics and presuppositions, only keeping the equality and ethical claims. But without this inheritance, where would our fights for civil rights, gender rights, or minority rights have ended up? The ancient world, and Nietzsche especially, did not share the Pauline claim to equality. From Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche, “As Nietzsche observed, secular moderns sought to exalt the ideals of humanitarianism and democracy while forsaking the Christian faith from which they sprang.”
If you believe in the Providential God, whether that be the God of the philosophers or the Abrahamic faiths, there’s something chillingly ironic that the man who wrote of the death of God was used — though without his permission — as the catalyst to massacre the chosen people of God.
When speaking on the idea of the exalted self, an individuality that could by itself find foundations for a flourishing life, Paul Carus said, “he who rejects truth cuts himself loose from the fountain-head of the waters of life. He may deify selfhood, but his self will die of its own self apotheosis. His divinity is not a true-God incarnation, it is mere assumption and self-exaltation of a pretender.”
So what do we do with Friedrich Nietzsche? What do we do with this man who questioned transcendental values and went mad, but left us with a mix of self-empowerment and a flair for the sinister? I’ve yet to finish Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book. Once that happens, and I learn more about this philosopher with a hammer, I may have a better guess.
For now, I wonder if we try to wrestle back a transcendental foundation, maybe something like Kant (who Nietzsche also criticized)? Do we find a way to remix Nietzsche into a positive shape and keep the egalitarian value inheritance from the Christian world, even though that inheritance is exactly what he loathed so much?
It isn’t obvious what we do with him. But it is obvious, which Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen shares in her book, that our world has been influenced by his philosophical hammer. What this says about us and what this means for our future is still to be determined.