SHADOWS

NIETZSCHE: THE OVERCOMING OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY, MORALITY, AND SCIENCE

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900) writes of the "overman," the creator, the great artistic personality who creates and acts out of an abundance of life, passion, and will. This type may be contrasted to a weak-willed individual, one who is tired of life, takes no risks, seeks only comfort and security. Nietzsche calls this passive being the "last man." For him, nothing great is possible. It is Nietzsche's contention that Western civilization is moving in the direction of the last man, for whom nothing matters, who has no great passion or commitment, who is unable to dream, who merely earns his living and keeps warm. With the coming of the last man is the onset of "nihilism," the negation of all values. Nietzsche is not himself a nihilist. He announces the nihilism that he believes must result from Western values -- values that are essentially self-destructive. Nietzsche's intent is to warn of the coming "nihilism," to annihilate through criticism a bankrupt and life-denying value system, and to encourage the creation of new values. For Nietzsche, what is most valuable, what is absolutely valuable is life; and by life Nietzsche means not mere physical survival nor hedonistic self-indulgence. By life Nietzsche means the continual attempt to create, to outdo oneself, to overcome oneself, to rise above oneself. The overman is one who "goes over," who transcends.

2. According to Nietzsche, there are two basic personality types -- the weak willed and the strong willed. The weak willed are afraid of life; they are unwilling to face their own temporality; they cannot say yes to existence. For Nietzsche, there is no existence beyond time. To be is to be in time. There is no metaphysical realm above and beyond the realm of changing, temporal, and temporary being. For Nietzsche, time is not a subjective frame of reference as opposed to things-in-themselves beyond time. Time, for Nietzsche, is absolute. The only constant is change. All that is comes to be and perishes -- is transitory. The weak willed cannot face the impermanence and what they believe to be the injustice of earthly life. Thus, they invent a metaphysical realm of pure being, of perfect unchanging existence, of "ideal forms," of heaven, of the "noumena." According to Nietzsche, there is no escape from time; there is only the apparent escape of metaphysics and religion. Metaphysics and morality, with their downgrading of earthly temporal life in favor of heavenly eternal life, are interpretations of life wrought by unhealthy, disheartened natures. For Nietzsche, as for Kant, knowledge means interpretation. But, unlike Kant, Nietzsche believes that human interpretations of reality are based, not on unchanging logical categories, but on individual dispositions and temperaments -- on the will. Weak willed individuals make otherworldly interpretations because they do not have the strength to face and rejoice in life with all its changes and polarities. They deny life. The strong willed, on the other hand, those who possess the "will to power," who can turn even great contradiction and suffering into inspiration and creation, who say "yes" to life, who affirm life, create interpretations of reality that inspire rather than discourage life here and now.

3. For Nietzsche, "will" does not mean detached, stoical loyalty to the "Thou shalt" (or even more, the "Thou shalt not"). Will means strong passion, love, commitment, attachment. The objective person is the detached person, one who impartially "judges" the object. He is unbiased and unprejudiced. His interpretations are bland and indifferent and inspire no one, not even himself. He is an observer of life, but barely alive himself. He is free of inclination and feeling. But for Nietzsche, life means inclination and feeling, strong passion, even bias. According to Nietzsche, the value of an interpretation is not its "objectivity," but rather its ability to inspire new inquiry, action, art, and creation. No interpretation gives reality as it really is. All interpretations are "subjective." But subjective interpretations that are too "objective" kill rather than promote life. They breed commentaries, even a critical periodical article or two, but they do not further creative life. They do not inspire. The problem with traditional metaphysics and morality is that they downgraded changing being and earthly life and invented the notions of a purer, better, flawless realm of "being." Kantian morality, by detaching willing from interest and love, is detached from life itself. Life is attachment, interest, passion. Art and philosophy grow out of attachment, interest, and passion. The will is not practical reason, not reason of any kind. Nor is it properly the will turning against itself, in the self-denial of moral prohibition, or the will attacking the inclinations; it is will freely expressing itself in works of art and heroic deeds and great philosophies. Even what is called "scientific knowledge" is, in the beginning, a fresh set of metaphors, a creative and daring interpretation of the Heraclitean stream of becoming we call life.

4. The purpose of any interpretation is to promote and enhance life (in the highest sense). Each interpretation is, initially, an expression of an individual creative spirit. Then, each interpretation becomes for those who succeed the original creator, a source of inspiration or stimulus to new creation -- if the successor himself shares the original creator's urge and strength to create. The old or the past encourages the new; old creation nourishes new creation. On the other hand, great philosophies, works of art, etc. -- all great interpretations in fact -- when they fall into the hands of the weak and uncreative, the passive -- tend to be worshipped rather than outdone, followed slavishly rather than overcome. In this way, original interpretations become hardened custom, rigid standards, and "objective science." By these ossified interpretations and standards, all new creations are subsequently judged and discouraged. According to Nietzsche, all interpretations are like sand-castles at the seashore; they are meant to be created and then destroyed, held for a time and then replaced by others, not fixed into the hard cement of "dogmas" or "systems." Nietzsche is a great critic of systems, although he understands the basic human tendency to build systems as well as the basic human tendency to seek shelter in systems, though their permanence is artificial and their solidity is illusory. Life is seemingly unfair and transitory, and humans are constantly tempted to seek refuge in doctrines, philosophies, etc. that have the semblance of "justice" and stability.

5. For Nietzsche, all interpretations lie to some extent. But the lie of traditional dualistic metaphysics going all the way back to Plato is a lie that diminishes, downgrades, and discourages life. Plato, according to Nietzsche, was disappointed with visible, sensible, changing beings, and thereupon invented invisible, intelligible, and unchanging being. Anxiety before impermanence and suffering is the basis of every metaphysics and morality. Both metaphysics and morality condemn life as it is, cannot forgive it for being as it is, and seek refuge in an ideal. They are always therefore dualistic, positing two realms -- one of things as they are and the other of things as they ought to be. Heavens are invented by those who are weary of life on earth. The God of Western metaphysics and theology is but the pinnacle of this process of otherworldly longing for elusive permanence, as well as moral distaste for sensible life. In Nietzsche's view, as this life- denying dualistic view has died, so God (created by this metaphysics) is also dead. Interpretations that are based on affirmation rather than denial of life also lie; but they lie in favor of life, to stimulate life, to give birth to new life. One who says "yes" joyfully to life, who is full of life and will, creates out of an abundance of life, as pregnancy leads to birth. One who says "no" to life makes what he makes because of a deficiency, a lack, a neediness, an emptiness. His work bears the stamp of bitterness, resentment, and disappointment; and it casts a shadow over would-be life and enthusiasm. The death of traditional values and the "death" of God mean the rebirth of man and the creation of new human this-worldly life-affirming values. Consequently, belief in a world and a God that transcend man is to be replaced by belief in man's ability to transcend himself, to constantly overcome himself, to have power over himself, and to generate new life and works.

6. Nietzsche speaks of three stages or ages of human spirit. The first he calls the age of the camel. The camel is a beast of burden. The individual who is like a camel is the individual who bears his life and suffering, who puts up with his past and the customs of his nation; he does his duty. He is serious, stoical, and long-suffering. The second age is the age of the lion. The lion rebels against his past, his situation, his culture, the circumstances of his life. He attacks the burden. He is a harsh critic of traditional values. He does not attack the past arbitrarily; he attacks it because he suffers from it. The final age is the age of the child. The child is one who no longer rebels. He turns joyously toward life and embraces it, with a new found innocence. He says "yes" to life, despite its apparent injustices and absurdities. He possesses "joyful wisdom." This is the standpoint of the artist or creator or overman.


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Copyright © 1996 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.