Because of Nietzsche's evocative style and his often outrageous claims, his philosophy generates passionate reactions. His works remain controversial, due to varying interpretations and misinterpretations of his work. In the Western philosophy tradition, Nietzsche's writings have been described as the unique case of free revolutionary thought, that is, revolutionary in its structure and problems, although not tied to any revolutionary project.
In Daybreak Nietzsche begins his "Campaign against Morality". He calls himself an "immoralist" and harshly criticizes the prominent moral philosophies of his day: Christianity, Kantianism, and utilitarianism. Nietzsche is also known for being very critical of the Western belief in egalitarianism and rationality. Nietzsche's concept "God is dead" applies to the doctrines of Christendom, though not to all other faiths: he claimed that Buddhism is a successful religion that he compliments for fostering critical thought. Still, Nietzsche saw his philosophy as a counter-movement to nihilism through appreciation of art:
Art as the single superior counterforce against all will to negation of life, art as the anti-Christian, anti-Buddhist, anti-Nihilist par excellence."
Nietzsche claimed that the Christian faith as practised was not a proper representation of Jesus' teachings, as it forced people merely to believe in the way of Jesus but not to act as Jesus did, in particular his example of refusing to judge people, something that Christians had constantly done the opposite of. He condemned institutionalized Christianity for emphasizing a morality of pity (Mitleid), which assumes an inherent illness in society:
Christianity is called the religion of pity. Pity stands opposed to the tonic emotions which heighten our vitality: it has a depressing effect. We are deprived of strength when we feel pity. That loss of strength which suffering as such inflicts on life is still further increased and multiplied by pity. Pity makes suffering contagious.
In Ecce Homo Nietzsche called the establishment of moral systems based on a dichotomy of good and evil a "calamitous error", and wished to initiate a re-evaluation of the values of the Judeo-Christian world. He indicates his desire to bring about a new, more naturalistic source of value in the vital impulses of life itself. While Nietzsche attacked the principles of Judaism, he was not antisemitic: in his work On the Genealogy of Morality, he explicitly condemns antisemitism, and pointed out that his attack on Judaism was not an attack on Jews as a people but specifically an attack upon the ancient Jewish priesthood whom he claims antisemitic Christians paradoxically based their views upon.
The "slave revolt" in morals
In Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche's genealogical account of the development of modern moral systems occupies central place. For Nietzsche, a fundamental shift took place during human history from thinking in terms of "good" and "bad" toward "good" and "evil".
The initial form of morality was set by a warrior aristocracy and other ruling castes of ancient civilizations. Aristocratic values of "good" and "bad" coincided with and reflected their relationship to lower castes such as slaves. Nietzsche presents this "master morality" as the original system of morality—perhaps best associated with Homeric Greece. To be "good" was to be happy and to have the things related to happiness: wealth, strength, health, power, etc. To be "bad" was to be like the slaves over which the aristocracy ruled, poor, weak, sick, pathetic—an object of pity or disgust rather than hatred.
"Slave morality" comes about as a reaction to master-morality. Here, value emerges from the contrast between good and evil: good being associated with other-worldliness, charity, piety, restraint, meekness, and submission; and evil seen as worldly, cruel, selfish, wealthy, and aggressive. Nietzsche sees slave morality as pessimistic and fearful, values for them serving only to ease the existence for those who suffer from the very same thing. He associates slave-morality with the Jewish and Christian traditions, in a way that slave-morality is born out of the ressentiment of slaves. Nietzsche argued that the idea of equality allowed slaves to overcome their own condition without hating themselves. And by denying the inherent inequality of people (such as success, strength, beauty or intelligence), slaves acquired a method of escape, namely by generating new values on the basis of rejecting something that was seen as a perceived source of frustration. It was used to overcome the slave's own sense of inferiority before the (better-off) masters. It does so by making out slave weakness to be a matter of choice, by, e.g., relabeling it as "meekness." The "good man" of master morality is precisely the "evil man" of slave morality, while the "bad man" is recast as the "good man."
Nietzsche sees the slave-morality as a source of the nihilism that has overtaken Europe. Modern Europe and Christianity exist in a hypocritical state due to a tension between master and slave morality, both values contradictorily determining, to varying degrees, the values of most Europeans (who are motley). Nietzsche calls for exceptional people to no longer be ashamed of their uniqueness in the face of a supposed morality-for-all, which he deems to be harmful to the flourishing of exceptional people. He cautions, however, that morality, per se, is not bad; it is good for the masses, and should be left to them. Exceptional people, on the other hand, should follow their own "inner law." A favorite motto of Nietzsche, taken from Pindar, reads: "Become what you are."
A long standing assumption about Nietzsche is that he preferred master over slave morality. However, the Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann rejected this interpretation, writing that Nietzsche's analyses of these two types of morality were only used in a descriptive and historic sense, they were not meant for any kind of acceptance or glorifications.
Death of God and nihilism
The statement God is dead, occurring in several of Nietzsche's works (notably in The Gay Science), has become one of his best-known remarks. On the basis of it, most commentators regard Nietzsche as an atheist; others (such as Kaufmann) suggest that this statement reflects a more subtle understanding of divinity. Recent developments in modern science and the increasing secularization of European society had effectively 'killed' the Abrahamic God, who had served as the basis for meaning and value in the West for more than a thousand years. The death of God may lead beyond bare perspectivism to outright nihilism, the belief that nothing has any inherent importance and that life lacks purpose. Here he states that the Christian moral doctrine provides people with intrinsic value, belief in God (which justifies the evil in the world) and a basis for objective knowledge. In this sense, in constructing a world where objective knowledge is possible, Christianity is an antidote to a primal form of nihilism—the despair of meaninglessness. As Heidegger put the problem, "If God as the suprasensory ground and goal of all reality is dead, if the suprasensory world of the ideas has suffered the loss of its obligatory and above it its vitalizing and upbuilding power, then nothing more remains to which man can cling and by which he can orient himself."
One such reaction to the loss of meaning is what Nietzsche calls 'passive nihilism', which he recognises in the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer's doctrine, which Nietzsche also refers to as Western Buddhism, advocates separating oneself from will and desires in order to reduce suffering. Nietzsche characterises this ascetic attitude as a "will to nothingness", whereby life turns away from itself, as there is nothing of value to be found in the world. This moving away of all value in the world is characteristic of the nihilist, although in this, the nihilist appears to be inconsistent:
A nihilist is a man who judges that the real world ought not to be, and that the world as it ought to be does not exist. According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: this 'in vain' is the nihilists' pathos—an inconsistency on the part of the nihilists.—Friedrich Nietzsche, KSA 12:9 , taken from The Will to Power, section 585, translated by Walter Kaufmann
Nietzsche approaches the problem of nihilism as a deeply personal one, stating that this problem of the modern world is a problem that has "become conscious" in him. Furthermore, he emphasizes both the danger of nihilism and the possibilities it offers, as seen in his statement that "I praise, I do not reproach, [nihilism's] arrival. I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength!" According to Nietzsche, it is only when nihilism is overcome that a culture can have a true foundation upon which to thrive. He wished to hasten its coming only so that he could also hasten its ultimate departure. Heidegger interprets the death of God with what he explains as the death of metaphysics. He concludes that metaphysics has reached its potential and that the ultimate fate and downfall of metaphysics was proclaimed with the statement God is dead.
Apollonian and Dionysian
The Apollonian and Dionysian is a philosophical concept, or dichotomy, based on certain features of ancient Greek mythology: Apollo and Dionysus. While the concept is famously related to The Birth of Tragedy, poet Hölderlin spoke of them before, and Winckelmann talked of Bacchus. One year before the publication of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche wrote a fragment titled "On Music and Words". In it he asserted the Schopenhauerian judgment that music is a primary expression of the essence of everything. Secondarily derivative are lyrical poetry and drama, which represent mere phenomenal appearances of objects. In this way, tragedy is born from music.
Nietzsche found in classical Athenian tragedy an art form that transcended the pessimism found in the so-called wisdom of Silenus. The Greek spectators, by looking into the abyss of human suffering depicted by characters on stage, passionately and joyously affirmed life, finding it worth living. A main theme in The Birth of Tragedy was that the fusion of Dionysian and Apollonian "Kunsttrieben" ("artistic impulses") forms dramatic arts, or tragedies. He goes on to argue that this fusion has not been achieved since the ancient Greek tragedians. Apollo represents harmony, progress, clarity and logic, whereas Dionysus represents disorder, intoxication, emotion and ecstasy. Nietzsche used these two forces because, for him, the world of mind and order on one side, and passion and chaos on the other formed principles that were fundamental to the Greek culture. Apollonian side being a dreaming state, full of illusions; and Dionysian being the state of intoxication, representing the liberations of instinct and dissolution of boundaries. In this mold, man appears as the satyr. He is the horror of the annihilation of the principle of individuality and at the same time someone who delights in its destruction. Both of these principles are meant to represent cognitive states that appear through art as the power of nature in man.
The relationship between the Apollonian and Dionysian juxtapositions is apparent, in the interplay of tragedy: the tragic hero of the drama, the main protagonist, struggles to make order (in the Apollonian sense) of his unjust and chaotic (Dionysian) fate, though he dies unfulfilled in the end. Elaborating on the conception of Hamlet as an intellectual who cannot make up his mind, and therefore is a living antithesis to the man of action, Nietzsche argues that a Dionysian figure possesses knowledge to realize that his actions cannot change the eternal balance of things, and it disgusts him enough not to be able to make any act at all. Hamlet falls under this category – he has glimpsed the supernatural reality through the Ghost, he has gained true knowledge and knows that no action of his has the power to change this. For the audience of such drama, this tragedy allows them to sense an underlying essence, what Nietzsche called the Primordial Unity, which revives Dionysian nature. He describes this primordial unity as the increase of strength, experience of fullness and plenitude bestowed by frenzy. Frenzy acts as an intoxication, and is crucial for the physiological condition that enables making of any art. Stimulated by this state, person's artistic will is enhanced:
"In this state one enriches everything out of one's own fullness: whatever one sees, whatever wills is seen swelled, taut, strong, overloaded with strength. A man in this state transforms things until they mirror his power—until they are reflections of his perfection. This having to transform into perfection is—art."
Nietzsche is adamant that the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles represent the apex of artistic creation, the true realization of tragedy; it is with Euripides, he states, that tragedy begins its "Untergang" (literally "going under", meaning decline, deterioration, downfall, death, etc.). Nietzsche objects to Euripides' use of Socratic rationalism and morality in his tragedies, claiming that the infusion of ethics and reason robs tragedy of its foundation, namely the fragile balance of the Dionysian and Apollonian. Socrates emphasized reason to such a degree that he diffused the value of myth and suffering to human knowledge. Plato continued with this path in his dialogues and modern world eventually inherited reason at the expense of artistic impulses that could be found only in the Apollonian and Dionysus dichotomy. This leads to his conclusion that European culture from the time of Socrates had always been only Apollonian and thus decadent and unhealthy. He notes that whenever Apollonian culture dominates, the Dionysian lacks the structure to make a coherent art, and when Dionysian dominates, the Apollonian lacks the necessary passion. Only the beautiful middle, the interplay of these two forces, brought together as an art represented real Greek tragedy.
An example of the impact of this idea can be seen in the book Patterns of Culture, where anthropologist Ruth Benedict uses Nietzschean opposites of "Apollonian" and "Dionysian" as the stimulus for her thoughts about Native American cultures. Carl Jung has written extensively on the dichotomy in Psychological Types. Michel Foucault has commented that his book Madness and Civilization should be read "under the sun of the great Nietzschean inquiry". Here Foucault references Nietzsche's description of the birth and death of tragedy and his explanation that the subsequent tragedy of the Western world was the refusal of tragic and, with that, refusal of the sacred. Painter Mark Rothko was influenced by Nietzsche's view of tragedy, which were presented in The Birth of Tragedy.
Nietzsche claimed the death of God would eventually lead to the loss of any universal perspective on things, and along with it any coherent sense of objective truth. Nietzsche himself rejected the idea of objective reality arguing that knowledge is contingent and conditional, relative to various fluid perspectives or interests. This leads to constant reassessment of rules (i.e., those of philosophy, the scientific method, etc.) according to the circumstances of individual perspectives. This view has acquired the name perspectivism.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche proclaims that a table of values hangs above every great person. He points out that what is common among different peoples is the act of esteeming, of creating values, even if the values are different from one people to the next. Nietzsche asserts that what made people great was not the content of their beliefs, but the act of valuing. Thus the values a community strives to articulate are not as important as the collective will to see those values come to pass. The willing is more essential than the intrinsic worth of the goal itself, according to Nietzsche. "A thousand goals have there been so far," says Zarathustra, "for there are a thousand peoples. Only the yoke for the thousand necks is still lacking: the one goal is lacking. Humanity still has no goal." Hence, the title of the aphorism, "On The Thousand And One Goals". The idea that one value-system is no more worthy than the next, although it may not be directly ascribed to Nietzsche, has become a common premise in modern social science. Max Weber and Martin Heidegger absorbed it and made it their own. It shaped their philosophical and cultural endeavor, as well as their political understanding. Weber for example, relies on Nietzsche's perspectivism by maintaining that objectivity is still possible—but only after a particular perspective, value, or end has been established.
Among his critique of traditional philosophy of Kant, Descartes and Plato in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche attacked thing in itself and cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) as unfalsifiable beliefs based on naive acceptance of previous notions and fallacies. Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre puts Nietzsche in a high place in the history of philosophy. While criticizing nihilism and Nietzsche together as a sign of general decay, he still commends him for recognizing psychological motives behind Kant and Hume's moral philosophy:
For it was Nietzsche's historic achievement to understand more clearly than any other philosopher...not only that what purported to be appeals of objectivity were in fact expressions of subjective will, but also the nature of the problems that this posed for philosophy.
Will to power
A basic element in Nietzsche's philosophical outlook is the will to power (der Wille zur Macht), which provides a basis for understanding human behavior—more so than competing explanations, such as the ones based on pressure for adaptation or survival. As such, according to Nietzsche, the drive for conservation appears as the major motivator of human or animal behavior only in exceptions, as the general condition of life is not one of emergency, of 'struggle for existence'. More often than not, self-conservation is but a consequence of a creature's will to exert its strength on the outside world.
In presenting his theory of human behavior, Nietzsche also addressed, and attacked, concepts from philosophies popularly embraced in his days, such as Schopenhauer's notion of an aimless will or that of utilitarianism. Utilitarians claim that what moves people is mainly the desire to be happy, to accumulate pleasure in their lives. But such a conception of happiness Nietzsche rejected as something limited to, and characteristic of, the bourgeois lifestyle of the English society, and instead put forth the idea that happiness is not an aim per se—it is instead a consequence of a successful pursuit of one's aims, of the overcoming of hurdles to one's actions—in other words, of the fulfillment of the will.
Related to his theory of the will to power, is his speculation, which he did not deem final, regarding the reality of the physical world, including inorganic matter—that, like man's affections and impulses, the material world is also set by the dynamics of a form of the will to power. At the core of his theory is a rejection of atomism—the idea that matter is composed of stable, indivisible units (atoms). Instead, he seems to have accepted the conclusions of Ruđer Bošković, who explained the qualities of matter as a result of an interplay of forces. One study of Nietzsche defines his fully developed concept of the will to power as "the element from which derive both the quantitative difference of related forces and the quality that devolves into each force in this relation" revealing the will to power as "the principle of the synthesis of forces." Of such forces Nietzsche said they could perhaps be viewed as a primitive form of the will. Likewise he rejected as a mere interpretation the view that the movement of bodies is ruled by inexorable laws of nature, positing instead that movement was governed by the power relations between bodies and forces. Other scholars disagree that Nietzsche considered the material world to be a form of the will to power. Nietzsche thoroughly criticized metaphysics, and by including the will to power in the material world, he would simply be setting up a new metaphysics. Other than aphorism 36 in Beyond Good and Evil, where he raised a question regarding will to power as being in the material world, it was only in his notes (unpublished by himself), where he wrote about a metaphysical will to power. Nietzsche directed his landlord to burn those notes in 1888 when he left Sils Maria for the last time.
Eternal return (also known as "eternal recurrence") is a concept which posits that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time or space. It is a purely physical concept, involving no supernatural reincarnation, but the return of beings in the same bodies. The idea of eternal return occurs in a parable in Section 341 of The Gay Science, and also in the chapter "Of the Vision and the Riddle" in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, among other places. Nietzsche contemplates the idea as potentially "horrifying and paralyzing", and says that its burden is the "heaviest weight" imaginable ("das schwerste Gewicht"). The wish for the eternal return of all events would mark the ultimate affirmation of life, a reaction to Schopenhauer's praise of denying the will‐to‐live. To comprehend eternal recurrence in his thought, and to not merely come to peace with it but to embrace it, requires amor fati, "love of fate".
Not only does Nietzsche posit that the universe is recurring over infinite time and space, but that the different versions of events that have occurred in the past may at one point or another take place again, hence "all configurations that have previously existed on this earth must yet meet..." And with each version of events is hoping that some knowledge or awareness is gained to better the individual hence "And thus it will happen one day that a man will be born again, just like me and a woman will be born, just like Mary – only that it is hoped to be that the head of this man may contain a little less foolishness..."
Alexander Nehamas writes in Nietzsche: Life as Literature of three ways of seeing the eternal recurrence: "(A) My life will recur in exactly identical fashion." This expresses a totally fatalistic approach to the idea. "(B) My life may recur in exactly identical fashion." This second view conditionally asserts cosmology, but fails to capture what Nietzsche refers to in The Gay Science, 341. Finally, "(C) If my life were to recur, then it could recur only in identical fashion." Nehamas shows that this interpretation exists totally independently of physics and does not presuppose the truth of cosmology. Nehamas draws the conclusion that if individuals constitute themselves through their actions, then they can only maintain themselves in their current state by living in a recurrence of past actions (Nehamas 153). Nietzsche's thought is the negation of the idea of a history of salvation.
Another concept important to an understanding of Nietzsche's thought is the Übermensch (translated variously as "overman", "superman", or "super-human"). Developing the idea of nihilism, Nietzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra, therein introducing the concept of a value-creating Übermensch, not as a project, but as an anti-project, the absence of any project. According to Lampert, "the death of God must be followed by a long twilight of piety and nihilism (II. 19; III. 8). ... Zarathustra's gift of the overman is given to a mankind not aware of the problem to which the overman is the solution." Zarathustra presents the overman as the creator of new values, and he appears as a solution to the problem of the death of God and nihilism. The overman does not follow morality of common people since it favors mediocrity but instead rises above the notion of good and evil and above the herd. In this way Zarathustra proclaims his ultimate goal as the journey towards the state of overman. He wants a kind of spiritual evolution of self-awareness and overcoming of traditional views on morality and justice that stem from the superstition beliefs still deeply rooted or related to the notion of God and Christianity.
While interpretations of Nietzsche's overman vary wildly, here is one of his quotations from Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Prologue, §§3–4):
I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?... All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood, and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is ape to man? A laughing stock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be that to overman: a laughingstock or painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape... The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth... Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss ... what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.
Zarathustra contrasts the overman with the last man of egalitarian modernity (most obvious example being democracy), an alternative goal which humanity might set for itself. The last man is possible only by mankind's having bred an apathetic creature who has no great passion or commitment, who is unable to dream, who merely earns his living and keeps warm. This concept appears only in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and is presented as a condition that would render the creation of the overman impossible.
Some have suggested that the notion of eternal return is related to the overman since willing the eternal return of the same is a necessary step if the overman is to create new values, untainted by the spirit of gravity or asceticism. Values involve a rank-ordering of things, and so are inseparable from approval and disapproval; yet it was dissatisfaction that prompted men to seek refuge in other-worldliness and embrace other-worldly values. It could seem that the overman, in being devoted to any values at all, would necessarily fail to create values that did not share some bit of asceticism. Willing the eternal recurrence is presented as accepting the existence of the low while still recognizing it as the low, and thus as overcoming the spirit of gravity or asceticism. One must have the strength of the overman in order to will the eternal recurrence; that is, only the overman will have the strength to fully accept all of his past life, including his failures and misdeeds, and to truly will their eternal return. This action nearly kills Zarathustra, for example, and most human beings cannot avoid other-worldliness because they really are sick, not because of any choice they made.
Critique of mass culture
Friedrich Nietzsche held a pessimistic view on modern society and culture. His views stand against the concept of popular culture. He believed the press and mass culture led to conformity and brought about mediocrity. Nietzsche saw a lack of progression, leading to the decline of the human species. According to Nietzsche, individuals needed to overcome this form of mass culture. He believed some people were able to become superior individuals through the use of will power. By rising above mass culture, society would produce higher and healthier human beings.