Friedrich Nietzsche, born in 1844 in what is now Germany, was one of the most well known philosophers of his time. Creating many philosophies that are still critiqued today, Nietzsche was known for his views on Christianity, nihilists, and the Germanic society, as well as many of his own philosophies, such as his famous phrase, “God is dead” and the creation of the term Ubermensch. Nietzsche completed most of his works in the late nineteenth century before suffering a mental breakdown and dying 10 years later in 1900. Just before his mental breakdown, Nietzsche completed Twilight of the Idols, a work that is known for giving a summary of Nietzsche’s most important views and will be the central work focused on throughout this paper.(Friedrich)
Twilight of the Idols opens with a declaration of war; a war on the idols. Not just the modern day idols, but the eternal idols as well. Nietzsche says that these idols must be hammered out so that we can hear their emptiness and we can move on to a greater and stronger society. The power of the preface of the essay shows that this is the end-all be-all of Nietzsche’s writing, and a final attempt to cover all of the issues that have interested him throughout his career as a philosopher. The essay doesn’t focus on a singular topic, but rather goes through many, starting with Nietzsche’s views on Socrates, introducing his idea of the “Four Great Errors”, criticizing the society of Germany, and many more of Nietzsche’s central ideas, which is what makes this essay such an important work of his. Many philosophers have responded to the ideas that Nietzsche brings up, some criticizing his radical thinking, and some agreeing with it. Throughout this paper I will share the responses of three people’s interpretations of his views, ranging from his views on Socrates, his theory of truth, and finally, his theory of nihilism.(Nietzsche)
The section titled “The Problem of Socrates” is not necessarily an attack on Socrates, but more an attack of his views on reason. Nietzsche had four propositions that he laid out for himself about attacking other views, and one of the propositions states that he never attacks persons, but rather uses them as a magnifying glass into their own views, which is precisely what he did with Socrates. Nietzsche viewed Socrates as a decadent; he viewed Socrates as a threat to philosophy because of Socrates’ worship of ideas that were viewed by Nietzsche as nihilistic and inimical to life. Nietzsche believed that Socrates viewed life as a disease and death as its cure, and that he had been suffering from a sickness his entire life. Nietzsche saw this as Socrates assigning some value to his life, and argued that a person can’t assign value to their life, because according to Nietzsche, the value of life cannot be estimated. Another problem that Nietzsche had with Socrates’ ideas was Socrates lived life through believing that with reason comes virtue, which causes happiness, or in other words, Socrates lived a life where reason alone provided the virtues of his life which thus provided happiness, which Nietzsche found life negating.(Nietzsche)
Daw-Nay Evans, a philosophy professor in the United States adds input to why Nietzsche’s views of Socrates are correct. Evans begins with looking at Nietzsche’s thoughts on Socrates’ use of dialectics throughout his life to the reason why Nietzsche was attacking Socrates' views. Nietzsche always viewed the use of dialectics as a “last ditch weapon” and a way to weaken your opponent’s intellect. Evans sees this as a method used by Socrates to acquire power over his opponents and take revenge through the use of dialectics, and he believes that Nietzsche would say that is a form of sickness, because he forced his contemporaries to face their shortcomings, which shows a sign of weakness. Evans goes further to say that Socrates’ use of dialectics attempt to avoid the symptoms of his negative outlook on life. Evans believes that this is further proof to support why Nietzsche thought that Socrates was a decadent. In the second part of his essay, Evans looks for further justification for Nietzsche’s attack on Socrates, and to do so he looks at how Socrates emphasized reason as the way towards happiness. Evans believes that Socrates’ perspective on life was incompatible with what is necessary in life, and like Nietzsche, he said that what is necessary is the affirmation of life, something that Socrates didn’t practice. Evans says that Socrates didn’t find a balance in his life between rational and nonrational drives that would allow reason to have a less privileged position above other drives that deserve just as much attention. According to Nietzsche, this is another reason that shows that Socrates is a decadent, for he overemphasized reason, and misused it as well, as a way to gain control over his instincts by subjugating them to reason, which, according to Nietzsche, is both a symptom and a result of his effort to escape decadence. What Nietzsche said, as well as Evans’ support, lay out very good reasons for why Socrates led his life as a decadent, something that I will personally explore further.(Evans)
I mainly want to focus on Socrates’ declaration of life as meaningless, with the only way out as death. This is an extremely pessimistic statement, something that Nietzsche grouped with nihilistic statements, which makes me immediately begin to agree with both Nietzsche and Evans as far as Socrates being a decadent and basing life as having no value. A question that came up when I was reading this section was, what then is the value of life? As I said above, for Nietzsche, the value of life cannot be estimated, because in order to put value on one’s life, one would have to be situated outside of life itself; they would have to have a God-like perspective, something that I have a hard time grasping, and something that Nietzsche flat out says can’t happen, thus the value of life cannot be estimated. I agree with Nietzsche on this, because nobody can be sure of the value of life; nobody has any answer to why we are here or what the purpose of this life is. Instead of searching for some value for life and coming up empty handed such as what happened to Socrates, one should live their life by searching for their passions and interests, and from there you can gain your happiness. Trying to use reason to find the value of life is useless because in the end, there will be no point in knowing the value of life and you won’t have found any value. As Nietzsche said in response to Socrates’ comment, “Judgements, judgements of value concerning life, for it or against it, can, in the end, never be true: they have value only as symptoms; in themselves such judgements are stupidities.”(Nietzsche, pg 474).
Returning to Nietzsche’s four propositions that he laid out about his practice in war, one states, “I attack only causes against which I find no allies, where I stand alone- where I compromise only myself...”(Evans). The next argument that I will present by Nietzsche upholds to this proposition, and that argument is the theory of truth. Nietzsche held that truth isn’t important, but believed in the fact that since we think there is only one right way of considering a matter, it shows that we aren’t flexible in our thinking. Nietzsche thought that faith in truth showed that you practiced your life in an ascetic fashion, that truth was just a fiction with no inherent use. Nietzsche did not hold that there were no truths, because if there were no truths then it would be true that there are no truths, rather Nietzsche said that truth is not found, but instead created. He believed that when we called something true, we were endorsing it, not giving it the property of being true. He related truth to the word justice, saying that they only have real value in fight, but don’t actually give the statements under which they are said real properties, thus making them unimportant.(Tanesini)
Alessandra Tanesini, a philosophy professor at the University of Wales, looks deeper into Nietzsche’s works, to fully grasp what Nietzsche meant when he said that truth was unimportant. First, Tanesini makes the distinction between two different theories of truth, to help make her interpretation of Nietzsche’s argument more sound. Tanesini says that the first theory takes facts about being true as basic and explain facts about something to be true in terms of them. The second theory is exactly the opposite, saying that they consider facts about something to be true as basic and attempt to provide an explanation of being true in terms of them. In other words, the first theory says that there is some property of truth, while the second theory denies that there is some property of truth, but instead truth should be understood in terms of the practice of properly taking something to be true. Tanesini argues that Nietzsche held the second theory as his theory of truth, because it is the theory for skeptics, and she believes that is what Nietzsche was. She says that Nietzsche didn’t hold truth in high regards philosophically because many things could be called true, but that didn’t necessarily make them more important than so called false claims; she questioned whether true statements had any value in everyday life, which in her view could either be prudential or moral. There is no link between something being true and that claim being more useful than a false one, so nobody knows if a false claim might end up having more value than a true claim. Through that reasoning, Tanesini argues that truth doesn’t necessarily have any prudential or moral value, showing its unimportance. She finishes her argument by saying that the only value a claim can have is how life-enhancing it it, and the claim being true doesn’t add any value. The endorsement that you give the claim by saying that it is true has no value unless it increases the effectiveness of the world and the desires of the people in it. As far as Nietzsche’s theory of truth goes, he also touches on the problem of having faith in truth, something that Tanesini explained but failed to take a firm stance on, so I will provide my interpretation of Nietzsche’s argument.(Tanesini)
Nietzsche starts off by saying that faith in truth commits one to abstinence, which results in that person sucumbing to fatalism, and they no longer take responsibility for their values and claims; faith in truth is the last expression of the ascetic ideal. For Nietzsche, the ascetic ideals devalues human existence, because it no longer serves a purpose. This is where Nietzsche’s famous phrase, “God is dead” comes up. The ascetic lifestyle used to give meaning to human suffering by offering an afterlife, but as the Christian conscience has given way to the scientific conscience, and God has gone with it, so has the goal that was brought along with the ascetic lifestyle. The fatalism imposed by faith in truth that was brought about by the Christian conscience is now brought about by the scientific conscience, and with that Nietzsche believes comes nihilism, and nihilism, in Nietzsche’s view is dangerous to human life. For me, this claim makes sense because when I think of the scientific belief, I immediately think of there being no reason for life. I think this mindset that Nietzsche is trying to make his point through, although not shared by all believers in science, could be harmful to society. Faith in truth is a dangerous thing; it leads people to put their faith into something that could be a devaluation to society. One should lead life by taking responsibility for their truth claims instead of living in the ascetic way, for only then can the endorsements that people give to statements become a value to society as a whole. One must master the internal conflict of truth to live a life that is worthwhile, one must have the will to power and to think for oneself, and then their life will have value. As Nietzsche said, “Investigators...who know how to keep their hearts as well as their sufferings in bound and have trained themselves to sacrifice all desirability to truth, every truth, even plain, harsh, ugly, repellent, unchristian, immoral truth- for such truths do exist.”(Tanesini)
When one thinks of Nietzsche, the word nihilism comes to mind, and not because Nietzsche was one, but because he was on a quest to rid the world of them. Many who haven’t read Nietzsche’s work believe he is a nihilist because of his harsh judgements and negativity towards today’s world, but after reading and dissecting his works one discovers that he was exactly the opposite; he saw the world as a promising dawn of new beginnings. Nietzsche definitely had nihilistic beliefs throughout his life, such as his extremely harsh views on the Christian beliefs. Nietzsche proclaimed throughout his works that the Christian church was hostile to life and that God was the enemy of life. One of his maxims at the beginning of the Twilight of the Idols stated that man was a mistake of God and that God was a mistake of man.(Nietzsche Pg.466) Nietzsche also objected against many moral statements, saying things such as “there are altogether no moral facts” and “moral judgements are like religious ones; truth is designated in all sorts of things that we call imaginary”(Nietzsche Pg.486). Through all of Nietzsche’s nihilistic beliefs though, he had faith that we could redeems ourselves. By denying God, we deny the responsibility in God, and only then can we redeem the world. He believed that to make someone moral, one must have the unconditional will to its opposite. He believed that we needed to step away from what we are doing now, for we are doing it all wrong, and deny everything we have been doing religiously and morally, and the new dawn will begin. So in the end, although Nietzsche had many nihilistic arguments, I believe that he wasn’t a nihilist at all, but many still see him as being ambivalent.(Williston)
Byron Williston, a professor of philosophy at Wilfrid Laurier University, writer of Complete Nihilism in Nietzsche, believes that Nietzsche was ambivalent. His main argument in his essay is that although Nietzsche saw nihilism as a diseased transitional stage in human history, to see nihilism in this manner is to misinterpret its significance for Nietzsche’s own thinking on the concept of creation and its function in human willing. In other words, Williston thinks that Nietzsche saying that we are in a diseased transitional stage leaves open the possibility of a post-nihilistic future, which invites the reflection on a new race of humanity, what Nietzsche called the ubermensch, the race that will show none of the sickness that we show as a society. Williston seems to think that this utopian thinking can’t necessarily deliver us from the sicknesses, and he says that isn’t necessarily what we should be seeking as a society anyways. He argues, that based on the history of nihilism, that there is nothing stopping us from regressing back to our old state. In the past, our society has been in a transition phase, and regressed further into a state of nihilism, such as what happened in the Renaissance era, where we transitioned from transcendental nihilism to reactive nihilism, instead of being brought out of the nihilistic stage and brought into a future society. Nietzsche thought that in some cases these reactive values, such as getting rid of a god, were the most efficient means to furthering our society, but he also thought that to grow and expand, we needed to escape these reactive values. This is where Williston believes Nietzsche was ambivalent, which is what causes him to find some level of falsity in his arguments.(Williston)
Nietzsche was a philosopher that touched on countless topics, which is what makes reading his works so interesting. He holds such a strong opinion throughout his writing, which makes his writing assertive, and very convincing. Throughout much of his writing, I found my opinion changing constantly because of his arguments. Although I didn’t agree with all of his ideas, he got me to think, which is what I think he wanted his readers to do. I think that he believed that if society started to think and get out of their old ways, they could prosper and fulfill and give their lives meaning. Although his writing style was confusing, his main ideas were not. I didn’t grasp fully everything that he wrote down, but he got me to think about how I live my life, how I want to be living my life, and how those ideals will hopefully become my own ubermensch that will lead me into a prosperous life.