What does it mean to say that God is dead, or that Christian morality is ‘Slave Morality’? How does Nietzsche think we should live, and think, differently? What is the Übermensch, the will to power?
Nietzsche wrote many influential books, and wrote on everything from art, music, and tragic literature to death, ethics, and time. His philosophy has a reputation for being difficult, and sometimes even contradictory, inspiring decades of scholarship and interpretation. However, much of Nietzsche’s work returns to a central theme: making your life a work of art. Taking responsibility for the project of your aesthetic self-direction. Nietzsche’s philosophy approaches this theme through a number of figures, terms, and stories. Each of these ideas tells us something about how Nietzsche thought we could become freer, more powerful, and more beautiful beings.
Slave Morality and Christianity
Nietzsche saw something deeply wrong with modernity and its ethical codes. Nietzsche saw Christianity’s moral prescriptions – modesty, charity, pacifism – as being descended from the values of slaves. This is Nietzsche’s infamous, and frequently misunderstood, ‘slave morality’. Slave morality, for Nietzsche is morality based on resentment felt towards others with more power and freedom than yourself. While Nietzsche criticized religion - and especially Christianity - the fact that many modern societies are becoming less religious would not have satisfied him: Nietzsche wasn’t just thinking about removing explicit religious sentiment from daily life, he was proposing the complete rejection of the self-effacing virtues which Christianity has taught us.
Nietzsche uses the term ‘ressentiment’ to describe the feelings of slaves, and more pressingly Christians, towards the passionate, immoderate, and heroic behaviour of others. Nietzsche’s recurring figure of the ‘übermensch’, or ‘superman’ (though not as you might be used to seeing him), is the person who is able to leave ressentiment behind in favour of power, self-direction, and artistic heroism. Ressentiment, Nietzsche says, is always in bad faith: you don’t really think that wealth or power is evil, but you say you do to attack those who have what you lack.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra
The übermensch is not just one kind of person, what is crucial to Nietzsche’s thought is that the übermensch constructs their own ethics and is unconstrained by the prescriptions, and taste, of others. However, Nietzsche did write one riotous portrait of the übermensch: Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Zarathustra is a bold poet, and a personification of radical freedom. Zarathustra is a prophet, cryptic and divine, preaching the importance of ‘self-overcoming’: the complete transformation of who we are into something new and beautiful.
Goethe and the Will to power
‘The will to power’ is Nietzsche’s phrase for the drive which animates the übermensch and the rest of us, too, in the moments where we get a little closer to Nietzsche’s ideal person. These terms are certainly impressive, but which real, historical people have really embraced this philosophy of passionate freedom? Nietzsche’s best suggestion is the poet Goethe. For Nietzsche, Goethe’s rapturous poetry represented the pinnacle of artistic freedom – a sublime and iconoclastic celebration of strength and nobility.
The eternal return
According to Nietzsche, the codes we should live by are our own to fashion rather than to learn dogmatically. Are there values you would choose, or pleasures you would enjoy, if not for the demands of humility and kindness? Or does Nietzsche maybe forget the strength and nobility in the poor and powerless?
A final question, from Nietzsche himself: if a demon came to you in the dead of night, and told you that you would love your life as you have lived it for the rest of eternity, would you be distraught, or has one moment of beauty or ecstasy been good enough to justify a pre-determined eternity? If not, should you be living differently?