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Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)

Nietzsche was a German philosopher whose writing was flamboyant and deliberately provocative, repudiating the whole Judeo-Christian tradition and liberal ethics. Nietzsche saw a conflict between the West's heroic Greek heritage and its Judeo-Christian history. He was struck, for example, by the difference between the two traditions' approaches to human suffering. While the Judeo-Christian tradition sought the explanation of misfortune in sin, the ancient Greeks took profound suffering to be an indication of the fundamentally tragic nature of human life. His first book, Die Geburt der Tragödie (1872; English trans. The Birth of Tragedy, 1909), analyzed the art of Athenian tragedy as the product of the Greeks' deep and nonevasive thinking about the meaning of life in the face of extreme vulnerability.

Nietzsche applauded the ancient Greeks for their ethical outlook, which stressed the development of excellence and nobility in contrast with what he saw as the Judeo-Christian obsession with sin and guilt. In short, he defended an ancient ethics of virtue and excellence in opposition to the modern morality of equality and "the good will" that he found, for example, in Kant's formalization of Judeo-Christian moral philosophy.

In contrast with the morality of the Homeric Greeks, a morality of heroism and mastery, Christian morality made the mediocre person of no great enthusiasm or accomplishments the moral exemplar. A good person, on this view, is someone who does no harm, breaks no rules or laws, and "means well." Nietzsche complains that the Christian moral worldview has urged people to treat the afterlife as more important than this one. Instead of urging self-improvement in earthly terms, the Christian moral vision emphasizes abstaining from "selfish" action. The person who does essentially nothing with his or her life but has avoided "sin" might merit heaven, in the Christian view, while a creative person will probably be deemed "immoral" because he or she refuses to follow "the herd." Thus the prohibitions of Judeo-Christian and Kantian ethics are in fact "leveling" devices that the weak and mediocre resentfully use to put more talented and stronger spirits at a disadvantage. Accordingly, Nietzsche suggests that we go "beyond good and evil," beyond our tendencies to pass moralistic judgment and toward a more creative and naturalistic perspective.

Nietzsche denied the very idea of the "otherworldly" and the idea of an all-powerful benign deity. As an antidote to the Christian worldview, which treats human life as a mere path to the afterlife, Nietzsche advocates a revival of the ancient view of "eternal recurrence," the view that time repeats itself cyclically. If one were to take this image of eternal recurrence seriously and imagine that one's life must be lived over and over again, suddenly there is enormous weight on what otherwise might seem like the mere "lightness" of being. But it is life, this existence, that alone counts for anything.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Evolution to FerrocyanideExistentialism - Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), Martin Heidegger (1889–1971), Jean-paul Sartre (1905–1980)