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Existentialism: Part III – Friedrich Nietzsche

  1. Apollo and Dionysus
  2. Master and slave moralities
  3. The eternal return

The relationship between Nietzsche and the existentialist Kierkegaard and the legacy of Nietzsche after his death will also be examined.

Nietzsche’s Main Philosophical Concepts

1. Apollo and Dionysus

In his very first work, entitled The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche delineates the key concepts of Apollo and Dionysus. These are of course Greek gods, and it is said in the relevant myths that they were brothers. In Nietzsche’s formulation, Apollo stands for the individualistic, lucid, rational consciousness, whereas Dionysus stands for the collective, murky, irrational subconscious of the human species as a whole.

According to Nietzsche, the concept of tragedy is born as a result of the dynamic interplay between the Apolline and Dionysiac principles within the human condition. Individual men and women seek purpose and meaning in their lives; and yet, they often come up against an inscrutable fate that clearly does not care about them and often subverts even their best efforts to fulfill their own personal objectives and achieve meaning in their lives. This conflict is the fundamental basis of classical tragedy.

The combination of opposing forces

Nietzsche suggests that the greatness of the ancient Greek tragedies were based precisely on the fact that they were able to refract the Dionysiac chaos of the world through the Apolline lens of the individual creative ego, and thereby provide audiences with a cathartic aesthetic experience that could reconcile them with the apparent meaninglessness of the world. Nietzsche’s first work is often interpreted as suggesting valuing Dionysus over Apollo—an impression that is reinforced by the ongoing and increasing relevance that Dionysus proved to have over the course of his career.

Within Birth of Tragedy itself, though, what Nietzsche truly seems to value is the interplay through which Dionysus and Apollo work together in an almost tag-team way in order to reveal the full contours of the human condition. For example, Nietzsche spends a good deal of time elaborating the significance of the chorus in the ancient Greek tragedies: as a collective voice, the chorus would represent the Dionysiac counterpoint to the actions taken by the Apolline heroes of those old dramas.

2. Master and Slave Moralities

Another very important concept developed by Nietzsche consists of master morality versus slave morality. These ideas emerge most clearly in his work On the Genealogy of Morals.

Slave morality – consists of defining good and evil strictly in terms of one’s own hatred of the values of those who are stronger than oneself. As Nietzsche has written, what is evil in slave morality is:

“precisely the ‘good one’ of the other morality, precisely the noble, the powerful, the ruling one, only recolored, only reinterpreted, only reseen through the poisonous eyes of ressentiment” (Genealogy 22).

For example, a man who wanted to be a painter, but then got rejected by other painters, may resentfully begin to believe that painting itself is a total waste of time, and that he is superior to the people who waste their time in such a way. This would be a classic example of slave morality in everyday life.

Master morality – consists of people making their own values out of the sheer power of life that flows within them, and not as a resentful response to a pre-existing order of values. This would be like a painter declaring that artistic creativity is a positive value simply because he feels it to be so, and not merely as a response to some other existing system of values. According to Nietzsche, the ancient Greek culture exemplified the concept of master morality, whereas the ancient Jews exemplified the concept of slave morality.

This formulation is probably the basis of a great deal of unfortunate misunderstands about Nietzsche being an anti-Semite. In truth, Nietzsche never said very much against the Jews per se. He simply hated slave morality, and in the Jews he saw an excellent case in point of slave morality. This issue, though, will be taken up a little further near the end of the present essay as part of the discussion of Nietzsche’s legacy.

3. The Eternal Return

Another very compelling idea of Nietzsche’s is the eternal return: this appears most clearly in his work Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Nietzsche himself was never entirely clear about how literally this idea should be taken. For present purposes, though, it can be interpreted as a thought experiment. Suppose that death was irrelavent and you were told that you would have to live your current life, moment by moment (with no exceptions), over and over again, for all of eternity. The question now is:

  • Would such a prospect fill you with joy, or would it fill you with terror?
  • Would you say yes, or would you say no?

At least part of Nietzsche’s point would be that people should strive to live in such a way that they would be able to say yes to the prospect of repeating their own individual life for all of eternity. If a person is unable to do this, then this would imply that he is living badly and according to false values, and that he should work toward changing his life in such a way that he will be able to say yes.

Nietzsche’s scorn for the afterlife

Some commentators have suggested that Nietzsche meant to propose the eternal return as an actual metaphysical reality. Even interpreted psychologically, though, the concept is fully in line with Nietzsche’s broader project of the abolition of transcendence. Nietzsche, for example, felt nothing but scorn for people who practiced asceticism and sacrificed their own desires over the course of their lives upon this Earth, on the grounds that they would be rewarded for this in some vague afterlife that would arrive after their deaths.

The lens of the eternal lens makes this kind of escapism utterly impossible, because it suggests that there is no other life, or other world: the “next” life would simply be this one, over and over again, with no end. Nietzsche would suggest that the very concept of another world would itself be a grand instance of resentment, through which people make up a fantasy land out of their basic hatred of reality itself.

Nietzsche and Kierkegaard

This leads into Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, which finds its most explicit formulation in his late work The Anti-Christ. For someone who is familiar with the works of Kierkegaard, one of the most striking features of Nietzsche’s critique of the Christianity of his contemporary European society is how closely it follows Kierkegaard’s own critique of the same. There are passages in Kierkegaard’s own late work Practice in Christianity, for example, that overlap almost entirely with passages from Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ: both existentialists are utterly hostile to established Christendom, on the grounds that it saps subjective passion and cultivates herd mentality depriving us of our individuality.

Nietzsche, however, generally fails to differentiate between Christ himself and the Christendom of Europe, whereas Kierkegaard draws that line in the starkest terms possible. The upshot is that whereas Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are very much on the same page at the level of negative moral critique, they end up worlds apart at the level of positive moral vision.

Religious disagreements between Nietzsche and Kierkegaard

Nietzsche – advocates for a quasi-naturalistic development of the inherent strength of life itself, which would entail the abolition of all slave morality (whether in its Christian, socialist, or nihilist guises) and the emergence of a new kind of man—the overman—who has the strength not only to carry out this destruction but also to create a new society and culture, undergirded by a new order of master morality.

Kierkegaard – believed the Gospel itself already contains all that we need to know about the human condition; the point would thus be not to go forward per se, but rather back to the beginning.

For Kierkegaard, Christ was the living God and the eternal criterion of existential truth; therefore, the crime of contemporary European society consisted more or less of just making people forget. Nietzsche, in contrast, attributed no special value to Christ himself and saw himself as the harbinger of something radically new. So, while both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche hated established Christendom, it would be a mistake to suggest that ultimately believed in the same thing.

Nietzsche’s legacy

Nietzsche’s mental health deteriorated significantly near the end of life, much like many great thinkers and writers, with his late works being produced at the brink of madness. He finally lost it one day when he saw a horse being brutally whipped on the street; and he spent the last decade or so of his life in a state of catatonia. As Miles has described the scene:

“The distraught philosopher flung himself on the fallen beast, wrapping his arms around its neck, seeking in vain to defend it” (7).

Some commentators could not help but see a certain poetic significance in this scene of the onset of madness, especially given that real compassion was also one of the values most conspicuously missing from Nietzsche’s vision of the world. One could say that Nietzsche’s madness had nothing to do with his philosophy. But one could also say that this surge of compassion for the hurt horse had all the qualities of a return of the repressed, and that Nietzsche’s madness was thus a logical consequence of at least some aspects of his philosophy.


After his death, Nietzsche came to be at least loosely associated with Nazism; this was facilitated at least in part by the apparently anti-Semitic remarks that are sprinkled throughout his work. There is a general consensus, though, that making Nietzsche palatable to the Nazis was mostly his sister’s doing, and that this transformation of his image had little to do with his own actual philosophy. Among other things, Nazism is quite obviously a kind of slave morality par excellence, utterly permeated as it is by the emotion of resentment.

This could not have been what Nietzsche had in mind when he spoke of the greatest of Germany, or the flaws of the Jews, or the advent of the overman. Rather, the only reasonable conclusion that could be drawn is that if Nietzsche hated the Jews for their slave morality, then he would have also hated the Nazis for more or less the same reason. Hitler in no way fit the profile of Nietzsche’s overman. Rather, Hitler was exactly the kind of resentful creature that Nietzsche hoped would be a thing of the past after the overman was done having his way with the world.

Works Cited

Kierkegaard, Søren. Practice in Christianity. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1991. Print.

Miles, Jack. Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. New York: Vintage, 2002. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ. Trans. R J. Hollingdale. New York: Penguin, 1990. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1966. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. Shaun Whiteside. New York: Penguin, 1994. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality. Trans Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. Clancy Martin. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2005. Print.

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