Friedrich Nietzsche is well known as the father of nihilism – he began the first serious discussion about its many advantages and facets. At the time of his writings, European culture was at a standstill; the church was losing its grip on the people, who were losing sight of the tenets that it espoused. Seeing this, Nietzsche predicted the onset of nihilism among the peoples of Europe, and wondered how it would affect them. At the same time, he did not want the people to remain at a point of nihilism; he wanted to find a way beyond it, using it as a waypoint to true understanding, or at least ideological freedom.
Much of this loss in the church’s grip on the people was due to the advancements of science and the usefulness of logic as a means to explain why things occur in life. Because science was proving to be quite effective at showing the way things are, people believed in that instead of God; however, science did not replace the values system like it did with its explanations. Instead, it leaves the world more accurately explained, but without meaning; this left people lethargic, hopeless and rudderless. This explained a great deal of Nietzsche’s desire to see people through the nihilism that was setting in, and his search for optimism in the face of
Despite Freidrich Nietzsche’s reputation as a nihilist, that is mostly due to a misattributing of his words to identify him as an advocate of nihilism. Instead, all of his writings on the subject of nihilism came from a sense of worry about the threat of nihilism itself. He was concerned about how society would be affected by nihilism, not advocating its insertion into it. Of course, even this assertion is thrown into question by the many contradictory writings he had on the subject; however, despite his basic beliefs in the lack of substance to the values of religion and society of the time, he was not quite sure what a wholehearted endorsement of this philosophy would do to society.
According to Nietzsche, there was no objective value to the values of politics and morality, and the boundaries that they held us to were entirely artificial, and even harmful in some instances. In his writings, he would often opine that the people around him did not know it, but they were well on their way to nihilism. Compared to previous generations, the values and morals of old were not staying with his peers as well, to the point where God may as well be dead. This led to his assertion that God was, indeed, dead, and we had nothing to fear from Him anymore. There was nothing to hold over us to prevent us from doing things against His will. In today’s modern society, the shackles of religion and polite society no longer held sway, leaving us to come up with our own rules.
Despite this assertion that God was dead, and the need to point out the nihilism inherent in his peers, he was not saying that nihilism was necessarily a good thing. Of course, he did not lament the death of God, because he saw the harm that traditional morals and religion could do to society and humans in general – seeing them do terrible things to others in the name of God. Having that sense of dubious moral fiber removed was ultimately a positive thing for society. However, Nietzsche feared the vacuum that would result if a different system was not developed. He did not want nihilism to thrive in society, as that would create chaos – nihilism means the absence of values, leaving no compass for human behavior. This could lead to violence and harm against one’s fellow man, something Nietzsche found abhorrent. There needs to be some kind of value in place to keep people in check. According to Nietzsche, “"Nihilism is…not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one shoulder to the plough; one destroys" (Will to Power, 1910). Nietzsche believed that it was an active betrayal of humanity to seek its destruction willingly.
Nietzsche simply believed that there was no need for a single perspective, which God normally occupied. He felt the requirement for a multitude of perspectives in order to have the widest range of philosophies available. The truths of those perspectives are consistent with their own philosophies, even when they are mutually exclusive to others. The primary thing that Nietzsche faulted Christianity for was its assertion that it was the universal truth, and that there could be no other philosophy but theirs. He knew it to be the opposite – asset of rules that had historical contexts, not a be-all end-all way of life for everyone.
The world of nihilism did not completely sit well with Nietzsche, as he did not agree with its assertion that everything warranted destruction. All that Nietzsche wanted to do was to break down old-fashioned modes of belief in order to make way for more temperate, universal understandings. He hoped that Christianity would give way to new values that would be informed by the individual, who could make up his own mind as to what he wanted to value. This is the antithesis of nihilism, where the very idea of values is sacrosanct.
While Nietzche began the first indepth exploration of nihilism and its implications towards society, he was not a strict nihilist as we understand it. Regardless of the seriousness with which he took the philosophy, it was only a means to an end for him – a way to push out the ruling philosophy, so that something else could take its place. If true nihilism were to flourish extensively, Nietzsche would be horrified at the void in values that would result.
In order to fill the void left by nihilism and the rejection of Christianity by modern society, Nietzsche wanted to find a balance between good and evil, and locating a philosophy that stood beyond it. Instead of seeing morality as objective and absolute, he believes it is fluid and dependent on our own attitudes and perspectives toward life. He hated Christianity for its inclusiveness and condemnation of sins, which he felt were perfectly natural functions and desires of mankind. To deny these instincts is to deny our lives and our humanity, making us resentful of our own identities and of God. This was one of the biggest reasons why he wanted Christianity to go. The idea of the afterlife, to Nietzsche, devalued the life that we presently lived in, making people not take advantage of what they had at the present.
The idea of morality was abhorrent to Nietzsche, and his ultimate goal was not just to remove values, but to allow humanity to place value in what they wanted to do and be, not what a forced set of traditional ideologies told them they could do and be. Being honest about our motives and drives, and approaching life with a measure of practicality, was the most important thing to Nietzsche; life had value, unlike what nihilism teaches us. The difference in his eyes was that this value was provided by ourselves, not an outside force.
Part of this movement beyond nihilism was Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal recurrence, wherein life is affirmed in a vast and important way. The importance of the moment, due to the cyclical nature of time, is emphasized in Nietzsche’s philosophy; this emphasized the concept of joy at every single thing that happens in one’s life, since it is important enough to echo throughout time in an infinite loop. The concept of being eternally fluid and never static was indicative of Nietzsche’s hatred of stagnation that led to his rejection of Christianity as an ethos; he felt that people always change, and that they should recognize and embrace it. Time and life moves without us, and we have no choice but to either embrace it or hide from it. Saying yes to life provides a positive, life-affirming attitude that enables a being to maintain honesty and enjoy all the opportunities set forth by their own ambition.
In conclusion, Nietzsche’s philosophy of nihilism only extended toward his concern at its existence in the wake of the fall of Christianity as a driving force in people’s lives. He wished to move beyond the coldness of science in order to find a new way of living: one freed from the trappings of tradition, where people had to deny their essential selves and mask their desires. This shines through in the concept of the eternal recurrence, which became Nietzsche’s new religion – the idea that all of this has happened before, and it will happen again. With this in mind, Nietzsche moves beyond nihilism to affirm life and the essential nature of humanity. While he was best known for nihilism, it was just a single step in his ultimate goal to see life affirmed for the individual.
Nietzsche, F., 1910. The Will to Power, The complete works of Friedrich Nietzsche. 14.
Edinburgh and London: T.N. Foulis.