(PHILOSOPHERS and HISTORIANS – continued)
Another writer opposed to democracy and materialism who was to have an influence on the twentieth century was Friedrich Nietzsche. He saw steps toward democracy as decay. Nietzsche despised liberalism as a "pig philosophy." Nietzsche was skeptical about claims that good times were ahead, especially as influenced by public opinion. He despised mediocrity and the masses. Liberalism, he believed, led to revolution, bloodletting and crime.
Nietzsche believed that the best of the human species did not always triumph as social Darwinists believed. Instead, he claimed, the best of men were weighed upon and dragged down by the weight of mass mediocrity. The strong, Nietzsche believed, needed protection from the weak, the fortunate from the unfortunate, the healthy from the degenerate.
Nietzsche believed in the imaginative and vigorous man of virtuous character that was the ideal of aristocrats. According to Albert Camus, Nietzsche claimed that a philosopher to deserve respect had to preach by example. Nietzsche was morally earnest, objecting to what liberals spoke of as the pursuit of happiness. He was opposed to what he saw as the bourgeoisie's focus on accumulating money. Such people, he believed, had no sense of honor. They lacked good style or a taste for that which made life worth living.
Friedrich Nietzsche, 1875. His "God is dead" comment has been described as a common misunderstanding.
Europe's aristocrats tended to be above nationalism, and Nietzsche was no supporter of nationalism. Nietzsche saw nationalism as an attraction for the mob and as a threat to human freedom. He foresaw demagogues using nationalism to arouse and exploit the fears of the vulgar.
Nietzsche had been a professor of classical philology at the University of Basel at the age of twenty-four – appointed before acquiring his doctorate. He had been a student of pre-Socratic Greece. As a philosopher concerned with epistemology he was in the tradition of Immanuel Kant, who believed in an empiricism balanced with reason.
In parallel with Kant, Nietzsche believed in asking questions and thinking for oneself rather than thoughtlessly following instructions on what to think by authorities of whatever kind. He has been reported as saying, "If you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire." He was at odds with those who followed Church doctrine. Religions, believed Nietzsche, taught a slave mentality. He saw a connection between Christianity and the rising belief in democracy and socialism among Europeans. He also lost respect for academia. He described as sheep those who would follow the dictates of scholars. Academicians, he believed, were more interested in protecting themselves than in pursuing truth. He believed in pursuing an understanding of the world through an open-minded investigation of the past and present.
Nietzsche was against Buddhist negations of life that had been adhered to by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Nietzsche had admired Schopenhauer but turned against him. Nietzsche held to an embrace of life despite its ups and downs, and he disapproved of romantic flights from reality or any other form of intoxication.
The world knows Nietzsche for having said God is dead. Regarding this, Wikipedia writes:
God is dead is perhaps one of the most commonly misunderstood phrases in all of 19th century literature. The phrase should not be taken literally, as in, "God is now physically dead," or, "Jesus, both the son of God and God himself, died on the cross"; rather, it is Nietzsche's controversial way of saying that God has ceased to be a reckoning force in the people's lives, even if they don't recognize it. After all, the philosopher is famous for his "punning" writing style that can be easily perceived as ambiguity. Thus, according to Nietzsche, it is time to transcend both the concept of God and the "good vs. evil" dichotomy found within most religions. The phrase is also commonly misunderstood as an exultation, whereas it is clear from the full context that it is instead a lamentation.
At the age of forty-four, Nietzsche succumbed to "dementia" – a mental disorder with "memory failures, personality changes and impaired reasoning." Researchers now believe that his having been diagnosed as having syphilis was the product of medical incompetence and quackery of the times. Nietzsche died of pneumonia in 1900.
Nietzsche's writings – mainly in the 1880s – would attract some the world's most famous writers and artists. After his death his younger sister, Elizabeth, tried to elevate him by promoting his dementia as part of a higher mental state. The famous dancer Isadora Duncan responded favorably, asking, "How do we know that what seems to us insanity was not a vision of transcendental truth?" Elizabeth embodied much that Nietzsche disdained. She lived during the rising of National Socialism and transformed Nietzsche into a Nazi. Adolf Hitler would embrace Nietzsche's belief in the uncommon man and his disdain for democracy. Hitler has been described as having Nietzsche's novel, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, issued to every soldier in the German army. In Britain and the United States, Nietzsche would become known as the "the Nazi philosopher."
Nietzsche would not have liked the fascists or Hitler's anti-Semitism, and he would not a have liked Hitler's demagoguery or the common "little people" who supported him.
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