Friedrich Nietzsche, as most know, was a famous philosopher for his awkward humanism and relational ties to Nazism (wrongly appropriate but not without understanding). The core of Nietzsche’s philosophy is self-overcoming. But the relationship of Nietzsche to the philosophy of life and nihilism are equally perplexing for many. That is, for a philosopher who gave a radical affirmation to life and confronted nihilism head on, why was it that his own philosophy ended up exuding nihilism in so many respects?
The answer to this is I think obvious. The metaphysical beginning for Nietzsche, his axiom, is not an affirmation but an affirmation of conflictual struggle. Thus, struggle is at the foundation of Nietzsche. Life is something off in the distance. It is the struggle for life. But in the struggle for life there is a radical denial of life—because life is situated at the teleological end that is, by the logic of self-overcoming, never to be ascertained and embodied. For, as Nietzsche notes, to become content with any embodiment or encounter is to cease self-overcoming. That is, to cease the struggle.
To embody and affirm life is to cease the struggle for life. As such, Nietzsche’s rejection of nihilism and affirmation of humanism exhausts itself, ironically, in nihilism and the destruction of humanism. This best seen in the cyclical reality of Nietzsche’s metaphysical thought. Self-overcoming is a constant cyclical struggle. As the origins of reality lay in struggle, and all life cycles back to struggle—as the real Übermensch is the man who is constantly engaged in struggle—there is no teleological arrival, affirmation, of life in the sense of the appreciation of life as in the Christian tradition. Instead, man is locked in a perpetual struggle for life which is to say man never has, or embodies, life as it is something that man is striving to reach but never reaches.
Given this reality it is understandable how Nietzsche’s philosophy of self-overcoming, this self-overcoming of nihilism, just ends up in nihilism. For struggle is dialectically tied to nihilism. The struggle for life is the confrontation with nihilism. Nietzsche, in this sense, is a unitive dualist or dialectician. The metaphysic of self-overcoming only is possible with a dialectical opposite to overcome. The very definition of overcoming leads us to ask the question: Overcome what? The answer is nihilism. Nihilism, then, not life, also stands at the center of Nietzsche’s philosophy.
Nietzsche, who influenced Heidegger, thought that the only meaningful existence could be found in the “courageous” confrontation with nihilism. Man cannot show compassion because that is a sign of weakness that threatens to upend self-overcoming. Man cannot appreciate beauty because that is a sign of weakness that threatens to upend self-overcoming. Man cannot accept the salvific Son of God—per Christianity—because this means that the struggle against sin, which is the struggle against death (nihilism), is ended and ends self-overcoming. So on and so forth. Nietzsche’s radical affirmation of life is, paradoxically, a rejection of life because his axiomatic foundation has no room for life. Life is illusive, something that we cannot attain. We can never attain more life just like we can never attain more being. We are what we are. Since we are not life, but struggle, we return to the metaphysic of struggle—self-overcoming—as the very basis of our existence. To struggle is to have life.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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