Nietzsche is one of the most misunderstood, misinterpreted, and generally vilified modern philosophers. Many people charge him with being a nihilist, and others claim him as a nihilist because they are nihilists. This is patently false. Nietzsche was an anti-nihilist and opposed nihilism. The key to Nietzsche, which is the key to understanding the Nietzschean canon, is properly understanding his idea of self-overcoming (selbstüberwindung). The basics of Nietzschean philosophy rest in this idea of self-overcoming.
I. Overcoming Nihilism, What was (or is) Nihilism?
The first general mistake in Nietzsche is that he was a nihilist because of misunderstood statements like man having killed God and that we needed to transcend simple morality of “good” and “evil.” On the contrary Nietzsche thought that such ideas of well-defined good, well-defined evil, systems of morality, transcendent Truth, and eternal felicity offered in union with the Divine, were themselves nihilistic. Why? Because they misrepresented the only Truth, the one truth, the one truth about life itself: Life.
Nietzsche actually considered himself a humanist and someone who celebrated life. It was everyone else who had misunderstood life. Nietzsche was influenced by the emerging evolutionary and biological science of the 19th century, as well as Friedrich Schelling’s naturphilosophie. For Nietzsche, the naturalistic materialist he was, all life sprang from the natural world. All life followed the basic biological impulses that were being discovered by 19th century biological and vitalistic science: Life was not mechanical like the 17th and 18th century scientists and philosophers believed (e.g. man as a machine) but that life was chaotic, organic, and aimed at one thing – more life. But we can never really get “more life.” Just like we can’t get more being. We are life. So are task is to say yes to life. To say yes to the struggle that is life. To avoid nihilism Nietzsche believed we had to avoid the temptation of contentment.
Nietzsche, having been born into a religiously Protestant (Lutheran) family had a paradoxical relationship with Christianity. In his elaborate system, Nietzsche considered himself the Prophet of Life. He also considered himself, paradoxically, a true disciple of Jesus insofar that the message of Jesus was about life. He also thought the best form of Christianity, found in Catholicism rather than Protestantism, was his real enemy because Catholic Christianity was close to the truth but made a major mistake in saying that one could have happiness through union with the Good, True, and Beautiful. Since the Transcendent doesn’t exist people deceive themselves into thinking that they have achieved union with the Good, True, and Beautiful, thereby ceasing their struggle to overcome sin. Nietzsche, in this manner, thought that the best strand of Christianity (Catholicism) occupied the middle tier (mittel mensch; “middle man”) between the übermensch (overman) and the letzter mensch (last man). Why? Because through Christianity’s doctrine of Original Sin, sin had taken away life and thereby had to be struggled against. While there was no God, in the Christian understanding of God, this idea nevertheless gave Christians something to struggle against in order to say yes to life. Thus, they were better than liberals and communists, infected by hedonistic consumeristic philosophy (Nietzsche felt that socialist and communist philosophy was simply a more benign version of liberal consumeristic materialism), who didn’t struggle for life but simply wanted material comfort and equality in life. (But Nietzsche’s greater enemy of the two were the bourgeois liberals rather than the yearning proletariat, who, like Christians, still retained a sense of struggle in the sense of want for redistribution and recognition.)
Anyway, Nietzsche saw all of these philosophies as offering contentment to life. This is why they were ultimately nihilistic. One had to embrace, vigorously, life itself. That meant that as long as one lived, one could never be satisfied with contentment, for in that contentment one ceased the struggle that was life and thereby subjected himself to death. He ceased self-overcoming.
So, from Nietzsche’s perspective, he was not a nihilist. On the contrary, he was an anti-nihilist. He opposed the age of nihilism (this coming age of lack of belief in anything which would be an acceptance of death) that he felt he was living in. Hence why he also fancied himself a Prophet of Life. He would pave the way for a future generation to become the overmen!
Nietzsche also believed in a hierarchal and ordered Cosmos. This hierarchal and ordered Cosmos is the result of what biology and Darwinian science had concluded: Life situates itself on a hierarchy that is sorted out to sustain life and develop life. This is important in understanding Nietzsche because this is what allows that situating of people into the overman, middle-man, and last man camps. The overmen are at the top. The middle-men in the middle. And the last men at the bottom.
This is why the age of nihilism is both dangerous and exhilarating. For the first time since the inception of life itself, life has the opportunity to be what it is: power and overcoming. In the age of nihilism, with the loss of all values, civilization is the weakest it has ever been. Nobody wishes to sacrifice or die for anything. People rather cower and hide, ‘be nice’ to others, and so on. As Nietzsche writes, “This is cowardice in the face of reality.” (The cowardice to live for oneself and defend oneself.) The loss of the sacred, beauty, and sense of belonging means the true overmen of society now have the opportunity to become what they are: The overman. But the loss of all this is necessary for Nietzsche in order for true power and freedom to emerge. This is why Christianity needs to self-exhaust, in its sacrality and beauty, we misdirect our will to defend what Nietzsche considers to be the abstract: culture, art, beauty, the Church, etc. instead of being true to ourselves: Our Will, since humans are nothing more than pure Will in Nietzsche’s ontology.
But for Nietzsche, the insatiable desire to manifest power itself is what the drive of Will is, unto which his rebellion against materialist liberalism is but another of the constrictions the self must overcome to be free. It is the very essence of freedom. It is an unending desire for unrestricted growth, which results in unrestricted power. But the greatest inhibitor to this unrestricted growth to manifest power is, paradoxically, the self. Why? The self, in rejecting the possibility of the power of self-overcoming, slips back into the comforts of material security, religion, or the world of ready-made values which he/she knows is a farce but would rather prefer that than embrace his/her freedom. As Nietzsche writes in Twilight of the Idols, “One must need to be strong—otherwise one will never become strong.”
Strength, for Nietzsche, represents our harmonization with the Will that is the Universe itself, which is what all humans have an innate desire for. This Self-Overcoming is what the “Overman” is. The overman is not a physically superior person, a racially superior person, or anything like that. The overman is the person who has realized his freedom to manifest power by becoming one with the will to power to become the self-overcoming self. Technically speaking, anyone can be an overman, but very few people will actually be an overman.
For Nietzsche, our rank in the cosmic order of the Universe is determined by our exertion of power. As he says in Will to Power, “What determines rank, sets off rank, is only quanta of power, and nothing else.” The more powerful you are, the freer you are, because the more powerful you are reflects the more committed you are to self-overcoming self. There are different shades of freedom then. The least powerful are the least free because they lack the will to power. The most powerful are those who are most free, actually free, because they have actualized the will to power in themselves to be the self-overcomer. (Nietzsche envisions a hierarchal, aristocratic, and organic society as the healthy society, for these reasons many philosophers who properly understand Nietzsche consider him among the ranks of conservatism or reactionary philosophy; where the free and powerful take their rightful place atop the hierarchal chain and assume their role as aristocrats, and everyone else fits into this organic society).
Freedom, then, for Nietzsche is the unlimited power that man can exert within the world in the process of self-overcoming. All history has been leading up to this moment of the liberation of the Will from self. Self-overcoming is Freedom, in other words struggle is freedom; constant and perpetual struggle is freedom (when struggle ceases, freedom ablates). Only the man who self-overcomes reflects the freedom that has been written into the Universe, which history has been working toward all along (and therefore takes his place in the cosmic order of the Universe) – but this is a continuous process (Eternal Recurrence), and by it being a continuous process the most free and healthy society continually plays this process out eternally. In self-overcoming, man liberates himself from himself, and realizes his Will as power manifested, which grants him complete dominion himself. And only the person who is constantly engaged in the task of self-overcoming is the man who is free, because he has total power, which is what freedom is, to will itself will to power. Self-Overcoming represents the harmonization of self-overcoming with will to power. In this, one becomes the overman, which is the man who is free to exert the sheer power of will as an exertion of his/her freedom. For Nietzsche we must be self-overcoming self (and those who achieve this take their place in the ordered cosmos at the top). Freedom, then, is never “fully attained” in a stasis sense, but something that must always be striven for, again and again and again. “Behold! I am that which must overcome itself again and again!”
Life, for Nietzsche, is a struggle for becoming: Becoming freedom, which is to mean to become Will itself, but never a life of arriving. (That means, while we struggle for being, we never arrive at being.) The free man (the self-overcomer) is one who constantly struggles to be, to be self-overcoming self. We must oppose and hate what we create in Nietzsche, because to fall for beauty and love in that which we create we cease the struggle of self-overcoming self. “Whatever I create and however much I love it — soon I must oppose it and my love; thus my will wills it.” My will wills it, is not a choice I make, it has been predetermined for me because the World is Will to power.
In this overcoming of self, which is the overcoming of nihilism, the strong take their place in the natural hierarchy as the true overmen, like the heroes of old. But it doesn’t end there. One must continually overcome self in order to retain their rank in society. At any moment, when one ceases to overcome self (in their contentment with what they have achieved), they grow weak and prove themselves not to be true overmen.
Now before people get the wrong conclusion, this is all about the self. One exerts their power internally and externally but never against others or other forms of life. Nietzsche’s language of power and power-based ethics is not about using power to subject and oppress others. It is about the power of the self to self-overcome. Hence why it is self-overcoming. I am my own worst enemy. Not others. I am my own worst barrier. Not others. The exertion of my power to showcase myself as the overman is not by oppressing others – those weaker than me – it is about the “competition” with others in a side-by-side race to speak. He who was most powerful will finish first in the race. The next most powerful will stop close to the finish line. The third most powerful will stop behind him, etc. (Only the true overman ever finishes the race.)
III. Life as Struggle, Perpetual Struggle as Self-Creation
Within all of this we see Nietzsche’s philosophy as one in which life is perpetual struggle. It is the perpetual struggle to be life. (You can see where he is building off his interpretation of Darwin.) For Nietzsche, the problem with Enlightenment Historicism is that, in its materialism and consumerism, we’re essentially mindless zombies who only life, work, and eat for economic purposes. This is not living according to Nietzsche. This is the “last man” ethos he speaks of in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Nietzsche’s critique of Hegel, and why he viewed Hegel as a heretical Christian, was because Hegel’s “end of history” (properly understood) is the grand union of art, philosophy, theology, culture, and community into grand harmony with itself. History is the progress of culture, but culture eventually leads to its ultimate form. In its ultimate form, the “end” is achieved. Thus, in this outlook (which is what Nietzsche also associates with Catholic Christianity) the triumph of culture is paradoxically the “end of culture” at the same time. We no longer exude our energies and faculties for cultural purposes, so we lapse into contentment and marvel with our own achievements. In this, we slowly grow weak. This was Nietzsche’s explanation for the slow and painful demise of Catholicism, blindly dying as it marveled at its own achievements while not realizing its own death was coming.
This is why Nietzsche rejects the classical outlook but saves their metaphysics. The want for beauty, happiness, culture, and peace leads to the softening of life itself. Life grows weak, then dies if it ever become s complacent. Life must constantly overcoming itself to be life. “Behold! I am that which must overcome itself again and again!” Therefore, Nietzsche is forced to reject classical natural law, and accept modern natural law, though he adds his own twist. Instead of pure conatus (power) as it is in liberalism and Marxism, the “Natural Law” is Will itself. As he wrote, “This world is the will to power—and nothing besides!” And proper exertion of Will represents the Overman in the Age of Nihilism.
Liberated from all the directions, or roads, that other philosophies and religions gave to men to bring about their felicity, Nietzsche suggests that for man to be free, and he is radically free, this means he must continuously create his own path of life. In charting his own path of life he continuously overcomes everything before him: Other philosophies, other religions, and most importantly, himself. Man, again, is his own worst enemy.
Because man may fall into that sin of temptation – that sin of contentment with what he has or what he has created. Man must always break what he has made, or, more properly, always build on what he makes. It is an endless artistic project in other words. Man must always be in a state of creation for that is what life is until the very end (when one finally dies a natural death). Nietzsche, in this way, was influential over French philosopher Gilles Deleuze when Deleuze said that the act of creation and procreation is an act of defiance of death. Deleuze inverts Nietzsche in that Nietzsche doesn’t see this as defiance of death as much as he sees the creative act (including procreation) as the ultimate acceptance of life. When anyone ceases that struggle of overcoming, that struggle of self-creation and self-creating, he is, essentially, the last man. The dead man. He has accepted death rather than accepted the challenge of life.
IV. Conclusion of the Basics
Thus, the heart of Nietzsche’s philosophy is the idea of self-overcoming. For Nietzsche, his philosophy is true self-overcoming because we must always be in a state of struggle with ourselves and the world we live in, a struggle against falling into the temptation of contentment and happiness because this would represent the end of struggle. Accordingly, Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity is primarily because Nietzsche understands that Christian philosophy promotes its own form of self-overcoming (the struggle between flesh and spirit) but makes the mistake of thinking reason can order desire to its end. Eventually Christianity falls prey to its own belief that one can actually attain and satisfy the desire we have. But, paradoxically, this means Christianity is superior to materialistic liberalism which has no concept of self-overcoming. Altogether, however, no prior philosophy properly understands the nature of life and struggle – this is why Nietzsche thought of himself as the prophet of freedom and anti-nihilism. His philosophy was the first to understand why the ‘last man’ follows from ‘end of history,’ and his philosophy was the first to understand freedom as struggle means one must always be in a state of self-overcoming in order to be truly free.
The core of “self-overcoming” in Nietzsche rests in his anti-nihilism. Nietzsche associates nihilism and last man life which is the result of the end of self-struggle. Struggle is life, so to no longer be concerned or exhibiting struggle is to essentially not be alive (you have become “the last man”). Furthermore, this struggle represents one “union” with the ordered and hierarchal Cosmos which calls the overmen to the top (those who are the true aristocrats and enjoy the fruits of freedom) and those who fail to achieve this “union” with the Cosmos fall and become “last men.” Nietzsche, then, has properly been called a “radical humanist.” For Nietzsche, perhaps paradoxically for others, this struggle is what brings happiness, but struggle is life, and life is happiness. But only a select few people (the overmen) will achieve this because of the hierarchal nature of the Ordered Cosmos. Nietzsche believed himself to be the Prophet of the Overmen, whether he thought himself as the first overman is unknown. Nietzsche’s greatest influence was upon Oswald Spengler, readers of the Decline of West should be able to piece together Nietzsache’s influence upon Spengler.
Lastly, Nietzsche’s overman is not about exerting power over others. It is purely concerned about the self. It is self power to self overcome. Not enhanced power then displaying that power in a master-slave relationship dynamic. Those who misuse and misread Nietzsche as advocating power dynamics over other people grossly misuse, deliberately, Nietzsche’s philosophy; those who misread Nietzsche as suggesting this need to read him again and can be forgiven for unintentionally misinterpreting Nietzsche. Nietzsche does not advocate the use of force, or power, against others. Period. Full stop. Yes, this happens in life. Yes, one can quickly confuse and conflate the overman with those who use force against others. But Nietzsche is not building a philosophy on violence toward others in order to actualize the self-overcoming overman. This is all an internal struggle. One might say, even a “spiritual struggle.”