The Many Faces of Philosophy: Reflections from Plato to Arendt

By Amélie Oksenberg Rorty | Go to book overview

29
Overcoming My Life

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was educated as a classical philologist at Bonn
and Leipzig. Until he resigned in 1879 for reasons of ill health, he was a professor
of classics at the University of Basel. Strongly influenced by Schopenhauer and
Wagner, he wrote a scathing attack on what he saw as the rationalism of So-
cratic and Platonic philosophy, (The Birth of Tragedy, 1872). After celebrating
unfettered artistic creativity in Richard Wagner in Bayreuth (1876), he turned
against (what he came to see as) Wagner's Teutonic-Germanic megalomania, and
began writing increasingly antiphilosophic aphorisms and perspectival thought
experiments: Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883–1885), Beyond Good and Evil (1886),
The Genealogy of Morals (1887), The Twilight of the Idols (1889), and Ecce Homo
(1908). The Will to Power was published posthumously.

Like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche held that the will to power is the funda-
mental organic metaphysical force. His reconstructed genealogical history of
morality traces transformations in the expression of that will, substituting
the opposition of "good and evil" for the ancient Greek contrast between
stellar and defective examples of the species. Archaic Greek heroes are de-
scribed as joyous, free, and independent, bent on achieving excellence. By
contrast, Nietzsche sees the inferior examples of the species are passive
and debilitated, further scarred by their animus and resentment. The weak
unite to form a resentful herd, moving to self-righteousness as their de-
based forms of power. Swayed by the poetic magic of prophets and
priests, the weak lure the strong and free to the mysteries of religion; in
their turn, sovereigns and judges subject them to the restrictions of law;
the sanctimonious then bind them to the obligations of morality, and fi-
nally, scholars subdue them to the awe of knowledge. The notion of con-
science, with its imputation of punishment and guilt (Schuld) as payment or
reparation, has its origins in a mercantile society, where the infraction of
law incurs debt (Geld) to society. "Bad conscience" is an illness: the weak
turn their corrosive rancor against themselves.

Nietzsche argued that just as each of these moral systems introduces its
perspectival categories and language, so too "truth seeking" is a perspectival
expression of power. But far from being nihilistic, Nietzsche's cultural diagnosis,
"God is dead," is a proclamation of the continuous possibility of the reeval-
uation of values and of the radical freedom of self-creation.


LETTER TO OVERBECK

Sils Maria, September 14 1884

… This is the mistake which I seem to make eternally, that I imagine the sufferings of others as far greater than they really are. Ever since my childhood, the

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