The classical traditions we’ve recently examined in search of answers to the question, “what is the meaning of life,” also form the underpinnings of our current societal and political viewpoints. Of course, today’s political landscape is inhabited by ideologies that do not completely adhere to any one tradition; historical, monetary, religious and technological forces have altered these traditions over time, creating hybrids.
You may recall our discussion of how Locke, Hume and Mill ushered in the European Enlightenment. This tradition, also known as “modernity,” was centered on a rational approach to life with an emphasis on individual rights. The backlash to this tradition came from many circles and in many forms but none was more devastating than the attack waged by a little-known pastor’s son, German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).
I confess that I only recently began to appreciate Nietzsche’s brilliance. The turning point came when I received a copy of his book, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” from my cousin Fran, for my 70th birthday last September. I found his prose—though not his ideas—captivating. Like Tolstoy, Ayn Rand and others, Nietzsche utilizes his fictional prowess to promote his philosophical principles. In “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” which is his most famous work by far, his protagonist is a hermit named Zarathustra who boldly proclaims that God is dead. “God,” here, includes all the ideals that are proposed by modernity—i.e., reason, faith, progress, and the idea of transcendent values.
In another work, “Twilight of the Idols,” Nietzsche takes aim at all philosophers, from Socrates to those of his day, saying that their emphasis on reason and systematic thinking is a retreat from actual living. By accepting Aristotle’s view of the meaning of life, or anyone else’s for that matter, he believes that we abdicate our responsibility to evaluate our own lives and live according to our conscience. For him, answers to philosophy’s ultimate questions do not exist; in fact, in asking such questions, we abandon the real purpose of life, which is to live creatively and boldly.
His views generated no traction during his lifetime and he even had to borrow money to publish the last section of Zarathustra. However, over time, people began to appreciate the brilliance and literary skillfulness of his writings, recognizing this bold philosopher as one of the founders of the postmodernism movement. You may recall that modernity prized the integrity, rationality and transparency of the individual as we individually and collectively progress into the future. While these ideas sound wonderful, Nietzsche’s post modernism suggests that, upon closer examination, these ideas are empty. In lieu of these empty ideals, he urges us toward existential “novelty, creativity and authenticity”.
What I find most troubling about Nietzsche is his absolute rejection of truth seeking. He states, “There is a great deal I do not want to know: wisdom sets bounds even to knowledge.” Reminiscent of the Daoists, he turned his back on tradition and science. But he saved his most damning critique for religion. For him, religion is a decadence that removes us from the natural world into the world of the supernatural. By embracing religion, we deprecate the very world we live in. He dramatically asks, “Is man only God’s mistake or God only man’s mistake?”
Instead of adhering to the democratic principles exalted by modernity, Nietzsche rejects our western ideas of freedom and equality. Freedom is shallow; the only freedom for him is the freedom from conformity, freedom to rise above the herd. Democracy is a disaster for humanity because it treats everyone as equal when they are not. Laws, morality, and a uniform ideology restrain the person who wants to move ahead. Power, as exercised by the individual, is the only true destiny for any human being. As you may have guessed, Nietzsche is a proud elitist.
As for our principal inquiry into the meaning of life, Nietzsche’s answer can be best understood if we envision him as a frustrated artist. Great art, he asserts, only arises from struggle. The meaning of life comes from our choice not to be dictated to by society or religion. A meaningful life is one that strives for self-expression. There is no afterlife or God but only what we have in the here and now. Comfort is not important; only self-expression must be pursued. Nietzsche’s views are reminiscent of Arjuna, a key character in the Indian Bhagavad Gita who found meaning in his freedom to fight.
The reason Nietzsche is considered an existentialist is because his emphasis is on existence rather than essence. Personal choices are not constrained by moral philosophy or objective forms of truth. In Nietzsche’s ideal world, we would return to nature and welcome the chance to be creative every moment that we are awake. Individual freedom found in liberal democracies is repudiated in favor of unrestrained freedom found in individual strength.
For Nietzsche, the meaning of life is to live authentically and powerfully, creating one’s own goals and values. Those of us who live by a moral code, be it religious or otherwise, are weak and only get in the way of the “supermen.” His strongly aesthetic vision perceives life as a work of art and all of us our own artists.
Before World War II, Fascists and Nazis used many elements of Nietzsche’s philosophy to justify their own worldview. Had he lived, he would have detested both movements since he abhorred nationalism and state authority. Unfortunately, he had a breakdown and was committed to an asylum for the last 11 years of his life. His sister, Elizabeth, a Nazi sympathizer, became entrusted with his writings. Many historians believe she may have doctored some of his writings to suit her political leanings.
The usurpation of Nietzsche’s writings by totalitarian regimes should not color our acknowledgment that he remains a critical part of the Existential movement. Nietzsche promotes a simple yet profound message, which is that we are all individually responsible for what we do, who we are, and the world we live in.
As to our original question, what is the meaning of life, his answer is equally simple: You alone can give your life meaning; there are no excuses!