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Friedrich Nietzsche

A critique of traditional
Nietzsche’s Life
Born 15th October 1844 near Leipzig,
His father was a Lutheran (Protestant)

Went to an elite school situated in a

former monastery. He studied the
history and literature of ancient Greece
and Rome, and showed a particular
talent for music.

After graduating from this school,

Nietzsche studied theology at the
university of Bonn. After his first
semester, he lost his faith and became
and atheist.

When he was 25, he became a

professor at the university of Basel in
Switzerland. He renounced his Prussian
citizenship and was officially stateless
Nietzsche’s most important
• The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music – 1872
• On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense – 1873
• Human, all too Human – 1878
• The Gay Science – 1882
• Thus Spoke Zarathustra – 1885
• Beyond Good and Evil – 1886
• On the Genealogy of Morals – 1887
• Ecce Homo – 1888
• The Anti-Christ - 1888
• The Will to Power – 1901 (posthumously)
Nietzsche and Wagner
Nietzsche became great friends with the
composer Richard Wagner and his wife,
Cosima. He greatly admired both husband
and wife for their musical and intellectual

This friendship formed part of the

inspiration for Nietzsche’s first work, the
1872 “Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of

Far from being a traditional work of

philosophy or classical philology, this work
was concerned with the nature of tragedy
itself, and, more broadly, the Dionysian
and Apollonian sides of life.
Nietzsche as an independent
In 1879, when he was 35, Nietzsche had
to resign his position at Basel because of

Nietzsche had fought for a year for the

Prussian side in the Franco-Prussian war.
It is thought that he might have
contracted syphilis during this time,
amongst other infections. For the whole of
his life, he was often plagued by one
illness or another.

From 1879, Nietzsche became an

independent philosopher. He travelled
around Europe a lot in search of a climate
that would be good for his health. In
particular, he spent a lot of time in Italy.
On the Genealogy of Morals
Nietzsche’s work, On the Genealogy of
Morals, was written in 1887.

A “Genealogy” is the story of how

something came about and developed –
it is often used in the context of a family
tree. Nietzsche’s work, then, is an
examination of how our moral concepts
(or those of the 19th century) evolved
from their origins.
On the Genealogy of Morals
Nietzsche’s work, On the Genealogy of
Morals, was written in 1887.

A “Genealogy” is the story of how

something came about and developed –
it is often used in the context of a family
tree. Nietzsche’s work, then, is an
examination of how our moral concepts
(or those of the 19th century) evolved
from their origins.

The Genealogy, as it is called for short,

examines the influence of religion,
especially the Christian religion, on our
moral thinking. He challenges our use of
the terms “good” and “evil”, and
describes the ascetic basis of modern
The “characters” in the

The Masters

The masters are the originators of the “master

morality” which was later supplanted by…
The “characters” in the

The Slaves

As time went on, the slave morality began to

dominate. Weakness and suffering was seen as
morally praiseworthy. The slave classes
comforted themselves with the thought they
would be going to heaven when they died.
Christianity was a convenient way to preserve the slave
morality, says Nietzsche…
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Bible, Matthew 5:5
“And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go
through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter
into the kingdom of God.” Matthew 19:24
The Revaluation of Values

Nietzsche uses the science of etymology (the origin of words) in order

to show that the terms “good” and “bad” have, through the slave
morality, come to mean “good” and “evil”.

Therefore, certain actions have acquired a moral significance that is not

justified. Using strength and power is often seen as morally bad.

Values, through time, have become re-valued. In order for the human
race or a given society to be successful, a further re-valuation of values
is in order.

In particular, the idea of seeking moral truth (that is, positing the
existence of objective moral facts) is likely to lead people astray.
So whose morality is Nietzsche attacking?

Well, his earlier work “Beyond Good and Evil”

provides us with some important information.
Target One: Immanuel Kant

Kant’s ethics have been very

influential right up to the present day.
It is fundamentally based in Christian
ethics, and devises a set of rules (the
categorial imperative) that people can
use to decide if their action is the right
one. Much emphasis is placed on the
use of reason.

Nietzsche disagrees with the

formulation of such rules, which
place the same obligations on
everyone and which could be said
to imply the existence of moral
Target 2: John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

Mill is one of the founders of Utilitarianism.

Briefly expressed, this is the view that
every action should aim at the greatest
happiness of the greatest number of
people possible.

Again, Nietzsche rejects this account

as it places universal obligations on
But of course, the main target is neither of these two
theories, but rather…
Target 3: Christian Ethics

Nietzsche particularly criticises Christian

ethics, and in the Genealogy they are his
main target.

Christianity, according to Nietzsche,

is responsible for the slave morality,
or at the very least it is an expression
of this morality.

As well as this, it seems to particularly

offend Nietzsche that Christianity is
based on a lie whereas it purports to
represent universal truth.

Much of what Nietzsche finds to

criticise in Christianity can also be Paul of Tarsus (Christian St. Paul)
applied to other monotheistic
The Ascetic Ideal

The Third Treatise is mainly

concerned with what Nietzsche
calls the ascetic ideal.

The ascetic ideal, according to

Nietzsche, is a very damaging
aspect of modern thought and

Asceticism is the denial of pleasure

and the search for a higher
meaning in life.
The Ascetic Ideal

The villain of the piece is the

“ascetic priest”, who offers those
who are suffering an antidote to
their woes. Of course, this antidote
is not a cure, and simply keeps the
sufferers anaesthetized.

But Christianity doesn’t get all the

blame. Nietzsche also offers some
physical explanations for man’s
exhaustion, including the
colonisation of unsuitable
territories, disease and, somewhat
bizarrely, vegetarianism.
The Ascetic Ideal

One of the worst things about the

ascetic ideal is the emphasis on the
search for truth.

It isn’t just priests who are

propagating this ideal, but also
historians and scientists. They are
trying to hold up a mirror to the
world and discover what is really

In fact, there is no such objective

truth. Reality is teleological, that is,
aimed at a particular goal. Truth is
Some questions to think about when considering

First of all, there are some myths about Nietzsche

we need to consider…
Nietzsche was insane

Well, it is true to say that Nietzsche had a severe mental

breakdown in 1889, two years after the publication of the

He didn’t publish anything else for the last 11 years of his life. The
collection, The Will to Power, was published from the papers he
left behind and was published after his death.

A common theory (held e.g. by the translator of our text, Walter

Kaufmann), is that Nietzsche contracted syphilis as a soldier. This
can result in mental health problems.

Nietzsche often makes startling and dramatic statements, and also

sometimes seems to contradict himself.
Nietzsche was insane

However, many of these startling statements are made by

characters created by Nietzsche rather than Nietzsche himself. He
simply has an unorthodox way of writing philosophy.

As for the contradictions, Nietzsche wrote an incredible amount in

a very short period of time. He was clearly bursting with ideas.

At the same time, we should perhaps remember Nietzsche’s own

ideas about truth, that is, that there is no objective truth. Nietzsche
is often described as a perspectivist. Isn’t it natural for his own
perspective to change?
Nietzsche was a Nazi (or proto-Nazi)

It is true to say that Nietzsche was the Nazi’s favourite

philosopher. They treated his ideas very selectively, picking small
sections they could use to support their cause.

In particular, his ideas about the value of strength and his

rejection of traditional morality were seen as possible sources of
support for the Nazi ideology.

The whole situation wasn’t helped by the fact that Nietzsche’s

sister (and heir – Nietzsche died a childless bachelor) Elisabeth
was a committed Nazi and helped them to try and force Nietzsche
into this mould.
Nietzsche was a Nazi (or proto-Nazi)

In fact, Nietzsche’s philosophy is far more complex than the

Nazi’s interpretation would suggest.

Add to this the fact that Nietzsche was disgusted by anti-

Semitism, and therefore would presumably have been horrified
by much Nazi ideology, and this seems to be a myth we can
firmly reject.
Nietzsche was a nihilist

Now, this one is rather more difficult to reject.

It is often said of Nietzsche that he is a destroyer of traditional

thought, but does not offer anything in its place.

He argues for a revaluation of values, but gives little guidance about


Did Nietzsche really believe in nothing at all? Does he have more to

offer than polemic?

This will be one of the main questions we try to answer.