Nietzsche and Nihilism Term Paper

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Nietzsche and Nihilism

"The world itself is the will to power -- and nothing else. And you, yourself are the will to power, and nothing else!" F. Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche was a 19-century German philosopher and classical linguist. Despite his modern reputation as being pro-Nazi or fascist, he was quite critical of all social control, and wrote extensively on religion, morality, culture, and science. Nietzsche's writings were, in fact, quite influential in numerous disciplines in both the humanities and sciences. In fact, with his continual questioning of the validity of truth and reality surrounding key ideas about the death of God, eternal recurrence, and the will to human power, many see him as the epitome of post-modernist thought and a prime example of nihilism.

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Much of Nietzsche's thought seems to be about the concept of human beings, not individuals, but the species, overcoming mediocrity and becoming "better." Certainly, his ideas are sometimes translated out to mean "nothing matters," but the crux of his views on existentialism are really nothing of the kind. Nietzsche's advice then, is somewhat dialectical -- man is the immature being, and there is a continual process and fluid evolution that needs to occur for humanity to actualize. Thus, Nietzsche is not simply arguing in vain for a superior ego or superior individual, nor is he saying that he is such an individual. Rather, he is asking humans to rise above the mundane, to become more than they are, and in a sense, to do what Marx and Engels complained that capitalism prevented one from doing -- self-actualize. In some ways, this could be seen as an extension of naturalism or nihilism, or perhaps simply a way to philosophically justify those tenets. Taken out of context, this can seem cruel and even totalitarian, but carefully analyzed it is positive and empowering -- why would we not want to better ourselves and become 'all that we can be?

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The overall focus of the books the Gay Science and the Will to Power (Nietzsche's books rarely have a plot, per se, more of a direction) is that contemporary (for him) German culture is unsophisticated and nihilistic -- but then so is all of European culture. The great thinkers of the past, Napoleon, Caesar, Gothe, Thucydides, and Caesar were healthier, more robust, and certainly more honest about the shortcomings of their societies. For Nietzsche, the great majority lacks and intelligent conscience. Nietzsche seems to be looking around at society and finding a real duality in the nature of humans. This duality appears again and again; as good/evil, selfish/magnanimous, spiritual/pagan, etc. He does see humans as being creatures that are unwilling to ask the hard questions, to move beyond a sense of routine and comfort into an area where it is difficult to reconcile certain things. The idea of the majority of a society "lacking intelligent conscience" points to a general view of complacency, something that contemporary educators have been arguing for decades. Yet, it is difficult to read critically or to interpret film and literature -- it is far easier to be fed information, told what to remember, memorize by rote, and regurgitate back. Nietzsche is simply asking us to go beyond that stage -- and think.

Now, extrapolating this idea further, we find that for Nietzsche, free will is thus synonymous with freedom. One of Nietzsche's major criticisms of religion is that the institution transforms the idea of free will into something divine and spiritual, out of the control of self. Christians, "in point of fact, simply do what they cannot help doing," like lambs to the slaughter, without thought of ramifications of responsibility (Antichrist, 126).

This is the epitome of the concept of a meaningless life -- disorientation in that one remains unconnected to what Nietzsche sees as reality. and, of course, the concept of the "death of God." This idea, is really more saying that the conventional Christian concept of God, or need for God, was dead and unnecessary, the crisis of faith being the disorientation of life:

No one is responsible for existing at all, for being formed so and so, for being placed under those circumstances and in this environment. His own destiny cannot be disentangled from the destiny of all else in past and future. He is not the result of a special purpose, a will, or an aim, the attempt is not here made to reach an "ideal of man," an "ideal of happiness," or an "ideal of morality;" -- it is absurd to try to shunt off man's nature towards some goal. We have invented the notion of a "goal:" in reality a goal is lacking . . . We are necessary, we are part of destiny, we belong to the whole, we exist in the whole, -- there is nothing which could judge, measure, compare, or condemn our being, for that would be to judge, measure, compare, and condemn the whole . . . But there is nothing outside the whole! -- This only is the grand emancipation: that no one be made responsible any longer, that the mode of being be not traced back to a causa prima, that the world be not regarded as a unity, either as sensorium or as "spirit;" -- it is only thereby that the innocence of becoming is again restored . . . The concept of "God" has hitherto been the greatest objection to existence . . . We deny God, we deny responsibility by denying God: it is only thereby that we save the world (Twilight, 36).

Overcoming disorientation- What is the individual to do if existentialism holds that so much is incoherent and disconnected in our lives? if, in a culturally or morally relativistic state we can actualize as individuals, and then societally, then there must be a way to hold moral precepts regardless of circumstances. We can move out of Nietzsche's limbo if the individual, and the person(s) judging the way we act all believe that our actions are moral and true. Thus, we move from being disoriented and inconclusive to moral and grounded (Shafer-Landau, 2008, 555). Some even posit that Nietzsche sees a fictional manner of participating in reality that contributes to this disorientation. Instead, according to Hussain, we should re-create our reality so that we find meaning in the beautiful, the attractive, and the desirable, and make this our associative reality. To exist without disorientation, the world must hold value to the individual, be meaningful in many ways, and even participative (Hussain in Shaw, 2007, 92).

Despair, Pessimism, Contemplation and Resignation -- How can we know how to actualize, though, if we have not encountered the opposite? Perhaps one of the deepest of human emotions is that of despair, or the idea of moving so far into the self that all external seems lost, or a mythology of reality. Without the idea of a conscious balance and the inter-relationship between the self, there is no tension that causes the individual to move forward. Indeed, despair is not just an emotion, for philosophers like Kierkegaard it is a loss of self -- or the state in which one has no concept of what it is to be human -- an extension of Nietzsche's complete disorientation, and a lack of power over not only the self, but the external world as well (Kierkegaard, 1983). Countering this thought, we have Arthur Schopenhauer, who claims that the world is really fundamentally what we recognize in ourselves as will -- and that the will can never be fulfilled (emotionally, physically, and sexually). Consequently, the basis for the human condition is, in fact, the view that with contemplation we eventually are resigned to the fact that life is difficult, rarely can we actualize, and therefore, filled with pessimism, despair, and hopelessness (Kelly, 1998).

Overcoming despair -- Fortunately, the Schopenhauer modality is not universal to the way other philosophers view the human condition. Martin Heidegger, in his exploration of being, claims that Western philosophy has misunderstood the concept of being by focusing too much on substance rather than understanding that being is about overcoming negativity -- of relating to modernity and culture by moving through despair in the direction of happiness (McGrath, 2008). In the Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus traces human's futile search for meaning and actualization in life and comes to the conclusion that like Sisyphus, it is the process that provides happiness, not the destination (Camus, 1942).

However, interestingly enough, if we look at other works of Nietzsche, we can also find a greater realizing that it is the process of suffering- in the literal sense meaning to undergo, that can also define the meaning of life. Nietzsche saw this suffering as a profound search for freedom -- with multiple meanings. True, there was the political sense of freedom, the idea of a society in which individuals acted upon sensical notions and personal worth. Then, of course, there was the idea of intellectual freedom, a continuation of the Marxist tradition of evolving towards… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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