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Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Violence

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Friedrich Nietzsche is an outstanding German philosopher, essayist, critic, and scholar. He is famous for his concepts about morality, good and evil, truth, individuality, free will, the meaning of existence, nihilism, the revaluation of values, aesthetics, the will to power, and the “Übermensch” (in English – “overman” or “super-man”).

His famous statement “God is dead” objects religion as a meaningful force in the modern world. It constitutes one of the key principles of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and his approach to violence in particular. Other major points are approval of self-improvement through a will to power, and the concept of a “super-man”.  “Super-man” is an individual, who strives for self-perfection and tries to exist beyond the limits of good and evil forces, aside from the mastery and the slavery. He is a product of spiritual revolution.

The major influences on young Nietzsche are important in defining the philosopher. Brian Leiter distinguished four major factors, which formed the philosopher, shaped his naturalism, and remained even in his mature works: “Nietzsche’s training in the discipline of classical philology; his exposure to the early Greek philosophers, especially the Presocratics and Sophists; his encounter with the philosophy of Schopenhauer; and the influence of the German Materialism of the 1850s and after” (27).

In Nietzsche’s philosophy, the notions of “morality” (typically subdivided into “master-morality and “slave-morality”), and “free will” were harshly criticized. Nietzsche often provided puzzling explanations of his ideas. For example, the philosopher appears to be a critic of all kinds of morality. However, he neglects only particular kinds of morality like “Christian” or “European” types. Besides, the philosopher aims at offering a revaluation of existing values with regard to some moral standards (Leiter 58). Nietzsche also rejects the idea of free will, naming it the “error of free will”. His critique is based on the supposition that agents are morally responsible for their actions, which indicates that they must act freely or autonomously (“the Autonomy Condition”). However, the actions are impossible, since they are “determined by the natural facts that determine consciousness” (Leiter 69-70). The author acknowledges a possibility to live morally without the influence of external judgments.

The Nietzsche’s philosophy bases on six fundamental values. The first one is the will to power. Nietzsche’s predecessor Schopenhauer characterized the world as meaningless and absurd “Will to existence” or “Will to live”. On the contrary, Nietzsche called the same phenomenon “Will to Power” and tragic optimism. “This world is the Will to Power – and nothing else! And you yourselves too are this Will to Power – and nothing else!” (Nietzsche 432). The will to power is a complex and multi-faceted concept, the fundamental drive for independence and dominance. The will is much stronger than the desire to survive, since in some cases, the death for a certain cause would increase one’s power. The will to power can manifest through violence and physical dominance. Nevertheless, the philosopher is more interested in the sublimation and suppressed will to power, when people would rather follow self-actualization than mastery over others. Nietzsche disagrees that people compared to other organic creatures may have intrinsic will to strength and power. However, he also emphasizes that human beings have self-consciousness, so they are different from other creatures in terms of the power they demonstrate.

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The second aspect is the affirmation of life. Unlike pessimistic Schopenhauer, who considered life to be tragic, Nietzsche supports ancient tradition, since the Greeks knew how dangerous and depressing life could be, yet they did not surrender to pessimism.

The third basis of Nietzsche philosophy is God is dead, which includes freedom, independence, and strength demand atheism. Thus, God is hostile to life, His existence is no longer taken for granted.

The fourth peculiarity is critique of morality. Master-morality should be applied to people, not actions; and slave-morality is born of resentment. Ressentiment in Nietzsche’s interpretation is a psychological state of the bitterness and hostility that follows one’s own inferiority and definitely leads to the projection of weakness as strength, thus, making a scapegoat of others. Most importantly, one should realize that ressentiment is a reactive state, a feeling that arises in response or as a reaction to the unpleasant state of affairs, or when the affected person is powerless to alter through any remedial action (Brian Leiter 162). The feeling is the basis of the slave morality. Nietzsche concludes that the absolute or universal moral system should be rejected and superseded with graduation of rank among various kinds of morality.

The fifth factor is critique of other philosophers. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche claims that philosophers today, after millennia of dogmatizing about absolutes, have a “duty to mistrust” philosophy’s dogmatizing tendencies (34). Yet, earlier in that same text, Nietzsche claimed that all philosophical interpretations of nature are acts of willpower (9) and that his interpretations are subject to the same critique (22).

The final standpoint of Nietzsche philosophy is the eternal recurrence. It is a claim that Zarathustra was not the overman, but the doctrine of “eternal recurrence.” Although the phenomenon demonstrates the idea of God, it may be interpreted as the hope that, notwithstanding time and obstacles, life will repeat again multiple times. Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of the eternal play of repetition, all configurations that have previously existed on the earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again (Kaufman 318).

Interestingly, the majority of the abovementioned features are interwoven with another Nietzsche’s concept of over-man. It was introduced in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in 1883. It may seem that the main protagonist embodies the over-man, but Zarathustra is an ordinary person, who believes that every man has the capacity to progress to the over-man. Kaufman claims, “To do great things is difficult but to command great things is even more difficult. This is what is most unforgivable in you: you have the power, and you do not want to rule” (258). However, Nietzsche did not provide his readers with an explicit definition of the “Übermensch”. He suggests that “super-man” would be the greatest development of intellect, strength, will, passion, and taste; the person that is absolutely free from all dependencies and who affirms life and the universe. According to Nietzsche, humanity is a transition, while over-man is a destination, toward which all people should strive for. The over-man owns unrestricted conscience that the human beings lack. The individual is conscious about his life. He finds it enjoyable, despite the fact that he regularly forces himself to struggle and to improve everything starting from his own “self”.

Superman will not come unless superior individuals have the courage to transvalue all values. It demonstrates author’s search for an ideal place “beyond good and evil.” By analyzing the basis of morality, Nietzsche tries to convey that our values are not stable and objective, because they express a certain attitude toward life. In Friedrich Nietzsche’s opinion, the personal beliefs about what is right or wrong are regarded as paramount psychological drives that should motivate us to be more honest and realistic in the attitude towards life.

Relating to the connections between esthetics and philosophical values, Nietzsche often seems to conceive the appeal of higher men in “aesthetic” terms. For example, Nietzsche says that prefering the cultivation of higher or lower men is “at bottom a question of taste and aesthetics” ( 353), and he suggests that evaluating a man in terms of “how much he costs, or what harm he does” is as inappropriate as appraisal of a work of art according to the effects it produces” (878). In Nietzsche’s view, the beautiful lies in the eyes of the beholder. Man is the true source and cause of beauty. Another opinion was stated by Christopher Janaway in his work “Beyond Selflessness: Reading Nietzsche’s Genealogy”. The author has diagnosed the pervasive tendency in philosophical aesthetics to reduce art to beauty, or to the aesthetic, conceived in a way that moral, political, and historical concerns, as well as audiences’ emotional involvement and even authors’ intentions, can come to seem irrelevant to art (93).

As for the ethics of political violence, it should be stated that any violence usually originates from the humiliated people. For example, slavery, inequality, or other unfair situations may lead to hatred on the part of the oppressed. “A society that has been founded up the suffering of the slave is not easily able to throw off the deep psychological scars of its origins…The revengefulness of the victim has a remarkable staying power over time, stubbornly outlasting the circumstances of its birth.” It is difficult to bottle up the humiliation feelings, since they lead to ‘hidden self’, which feeds on  violence and suffering that lies at the heart of the ‘unconscious’ and is “the product of an act of repression”. Negative emotions fuel desire for revenge to the point where acts of violence come into force. Fascinatingly, the prescription for dealing with ressentiment has been catered for. They include the desire to express one’s anger and bitterness and discharge the destructive energy rather than keep everything bottled up inside. Consequently, we need to find a relief by expressing ourselves and expressing our inner natures. The problem lies in the fact that in order “…to discharge one’s ressentiment one must become like a marauding Viking or Homeric hero, an artist of expressive violence. This is the notorious übermensch, the atheist holy man…” (Giles Fraser).

All things considered, philosophy should pay Nietzsche a credit, because he was a prominent philosopher, whose literary works triggered further interest in the topic and played an important role in the development of philosophy, literature, and culture.