Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most famous philosophers of the 19th century. He was influenced by Schopenhauer, Plato and Kant. He exclaimed the death of God and the birth of the Overman. Because of his sister, he became associated with Nazism and fascism. But whatever you make of him, he is one of the most influential philosophers in the history of philosophy. I believe that most of 20th century philosophy had to at least answer the question that Nietzsche posed: What is good and what is evil?
In the Gay Science he introduces the death of God. A madman comes to the street and asks the people on the street (who are mostly atheists) if they realized that we had killed God. As the madman walks down the streets, he shouts: “Where is God?’ he cried; ‘I’ll tell you! We have killed him – you and I! We are all his murderers.’” (GS,125) And while we killed God, we killed western moral values.
Now there are no longer objective moral values, since our new worldview has killed God. But does that mean everything falls into an endless pit of nihilism? I would say this is one of the greatest problems Nietzsche had to solve. Because Nietzsche was not a pessimist in the sense that everything would go to hell. He had his own form of pessimism: Dionysian pessimism, but more on that in another post. His whole philosophy was an attempt at trying to solve the great dread of nihilism.
Does the death of God mean nihilism? Does the fact that we can no longer define good and evil, mean that these claims are empty? As Nietzsche says: “There are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena.” (BG, 108) Thus, we can say that Nietzsche is a moral cognitivist. A moral cognitivist is someone who believes that moral phenomena are situated in the mind and not in reality itself. Nietzsche is also the advocate for a moral perspectivism. It is crucial to distance this from moral relativism. Moral perspectivism merely states that moral phenomena can be viewed from different perspectives. This might imply that there are infinite interpretations but not that they are all of equal value. Moral relativism on the other hand claims that there are infinite interpretations and that every one of them is equal to the other.
Nietzsche was not a moral relativist. Rather he was a proponent of creating one’s own values. These values weren’t arbitrary, rather they had to enable you to say yes to life. We find a hint at how to create our own moral values in another famous passage of Nietzsche, where he proceeds: “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence.’ […] ‘Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’” (GS, 341). In every action we take we should ask if we want to relive that moment forever in eternity. By asking ourselves that question, we take responsibility for the consequences. We have thought things through and even though we can’t anticipate what comes next we accept it. This is called Nietzsche ‘eternal recurrence’ and I see this as one of the most basic of Nietzsche’s moral philosophy and his first answer to nihilism. The eternal recurrence is also an important idea in his most famous book Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
We should create the values that would make us want to repeat our lives eternally. They need us to say yes to our lives. But we are responsible for creating those values. If we follow others, then we participate in the herd morality. For Nietzsche it was important that one should rise above the herd: “everything that elevates an individual above the herd and intimidates the neighbor is … called evil” (BGE 201). In order to protect the herd, the herd will see those as rising above them as evil. But for Nietzsche it is necessary that we rise above the herd. In the herd morality we haven’t created our own values. Rather we follow those of others. We are a slave to the herd. Nietzsche claims that “whereas all noble morality grows out of a triumphant saying ‘yes’ to itself, slave morality says ‘no’ on principle to everything that is ‘outside’, ‘other’, ‘non-self’: and this ‘no’ is its creative deed.” (GM,1.10). In order to have a noble morality we need to say yes to the values we create.
In my opinion it is quite hard to say what kind of moralist Nietzsche is. I have not read every book of him and can only say that I have but scraped the tiny surface of his thought. But if I had to place him somewhere, I would say he is a kind of virtue ethicist with pragmatism. In the very least I wouldn’t call it far-fetched to claim that Nietzsche is a pragmatist in his writing. Creating your own values and structuring them hierarchically is something a pragmatist would do. We need to act in the world in order to change it for the better or worse. Nietzsche exclaimed that “everyone who wanted to be free needed to become free because of their own doing” (GS, 99). “Freedom is not something that just falls into your lap” (GS, 99). With this he proposed an active life. We need to actively create our own freedom in order to be free. In analogy, this means that we should create our own values in order to have values. The way we view the world is the way the world will be. As Nietzsche pointed out in his criticism of Christianity: “The Christian resolve to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.” (GS, 130). Thus, in order to create a beautiful and good world, we need to regard the world as beautiful and good.
Through the creation of our own values, we can solve the problem of nihilism. God might be dead and with him our objective moral values, but there is no need to fear. We as humans, are capable of creating our own values and transcending the herd morality of Christianity (and other religions). By using the eternal recurrence as a standard, we can find a way to say yes to life. Now, this life isn’t easy. There is a lot of misery and pain, but we need to control what we can. We should live actively instead of passively. As Socrates said during the Apology: “An unexamined life is not worth living.”