Friedrich Nietzsche Philosophy – There Is Only One Answer: Be Human, All Too Human
One of the most significant philosophers of all time.
His name has been connected to a myriad of ideas and his reputation has crossed the limits of Europe to “infect” the rest of the world.
Friedrich Nietzsche is a man that has influenced my views and beliefs to the core and also a source of inspiration and soothing whenever I feel lost and in need of direction.
Today, I will attempt something I wanted for a long time. I will try to paint a picture of this legendary figure while analyzing one of his most interesting works, “Human, all too Human.”
I bought this classic while losing myself in the endless titles of a local bookstore. It kind of seduced me the moment I saw it. It was an instinctive form of seduction that sprung from my visceral need to have a part of Nietzsche with me wherever I travel.
This monumental pamphlet encompasses most of the conundrums faced within the human psyche and attempts to describe and analyze them in a philosophical way.
It is packed with powerful maxims that illustrate Nietzsche’s unparalleled ability to scrutinize human nature and offer concrete and, oftentimes, poetic advice on how to deal with it.
But before I jump into the ideas expressed in the book, I want to discuss a bit of history and lay out some interesting anecdotes from Nietzsche’s life. For I hold the conviction that, in order to understand a philosopher, you first need to understand his life and the epoch within he existed.
Doing so allows you to better absorb the messages he wants to share and also increase the chances of decoding the hidden symbolisms he wants to communicate.
Friedrich Nietzsche – A Brief History
Friedrich Nietzsche was born on October 15th, 1844 in the small town of Röcken, near Leipzig, in the Prussian Province of Saxony.
His father was a Lutheran pastor and died when Nietzsche was five. As a result, he was raised in a household consisting of his mother, grandmother, two aunts, and a younger sister. 1
During his childhood, Nietzsche attended a boarding school and showed interest in literature, poetry, and music. After graduation, he commenced studies in theology and classical philology at the University of Bonn with the hope of becoming a minister.
His rebellious spirit started to emerge during the first years of university when he decided to drop out of his theological studies and lose his faith. That was primarily affected by his decision to seek the truth, which, in his point of view, was diametrically opposed to religious teachings.
In a letter sent to his deeply religious sister, whilst trying to justify his actions, he mentions the following:
“Hence the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire…”
Unshackled from the chains of theology, Nietzsche concentrated his efforts on philology. During that time, Europe was experiencing a shift towards more materialistic and scientific worldviews and the general rebellion against tradition and authority intrigued Nietzsche greatly. As a result, the cultural influences led him to expand his horizons beyond philology and concentrate his study in philosophy.
In the following years, his natural prowess towards the classical studies didn’t go unnoticed and, at the age of 24, he received a remarkable offer to become a professor of classical philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland.
During the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), Nietzsche served the Prussian forces as a medical orderly. This short period was quite detrimental for him because he experienced first hand the atrocities of war and he also contracted diseases like dysentery, diphtheria, and perhaps syphilis. Health problems would plague him for the rest of his life.
Nietzsche’s first book was “The Birth of Tragedy” (1872) in which he attempts to reconcile the forces of the Apollonian and the Dionysian noticed in Greek Tragedy. The book wasn’t received with enthusiasm by the philological community because he used a more spectacular approach to communicate his views. That was a pivotal moment in Nietzsche’s life since he decided to isolate himself from philology and focus all his efforts on philosophy.
His early writings were dominated by a feeling of pessimism that originated from a repulse towards the trajectory adopted by the German culture at the time. More specifically, he was repelled by the banality of the shows and the baseness of the public noticed in events like the Bayreuth Festival. Nietzsche was a true contrarian and his overall life stance was an attempt to escape everything that limits human capacity and seek the sublime.
That approach is illuminated in his next work “Human, all too Human,” published in 1878. “Human, all too Human” is a collection of aphorisms ranging from metaphysics to morality to religion to gender studies. This specific style of work was perceived as a reaction against the pessimistic philosophy of Wagner and Schopenhauer who were his major influencers during that period. As a consequence, Nietzsche had to distance himself from this circle and pursue a solo career.
From 1879 till 1888, he forged his own path as an independent philosopher. This was probably the most turbulent period of his life since he experienced a plethora of tumultuous events and encounters. During that time:
- Nietzsche’s health worsened dramatically.
- He resided to northern Italy in search of a milder climate.
- He met the infamous Lou Salome who stigmatized his life.
- He published his most famous book “Thus spoke Zarathustra.”
It is said that in 1882 Nietzsche started taking huge doses of opium to relieve his pain and insomnia but the drug clearly affected his overall health and possibly his writing style.
On January 3rd, 1889, Nietzsche suffered a mental collapse. Rumors say that the philosopher saw a man beating his horse on the street in Turin and rushed to intervene. He collapsed in the street and never regained his sanity. He spent the last eleven years of his life on the verge of insanity sending absurd letters to his friends and surviving due to the care of his sister. He died on August 25th, 1900.
Friedrich Nietzsche – Human all too Human
Friedrich Nietzsche, in “Human all too human,” investigates various areas of human life in an attempt to create a coherent philosophical framework that can offer solid advice to problems we all face.
His writing style is dense and unique. He uses very colorful language and he “plays” with words like a master craftsman “plays” with his tools. Oftentimes the gravity of his psyche and the psychological tension of his world seem palpable in his sentences.
All of the maxims included in the book are important and highlight the depth of Nietzsche’s inner world. However, for the sake of brevity and practicality, I will expand on five that stood out for me.
The advantages of psychological observation. That meditating on things human, all too human (or, as the learned phrase goes, “psychological observation”) is one of the means by which man can ease life’s burden; that by exercising this art, one can secure presence of mind in difficult situations and entertainment amid boring surroundings; indeed, that from the thorniest and unhappiest phases of one’s own life one can pluck maxims and feel a bit better thereby.
The benefits of psychological observation, that is, the ability to observe and understand one’s motives and actions cannot be understated. More often than not, we are lost within the banality of superfluous acts and we fail to realize how awareness plays out across the span of our lives.
Psychological observation is such a powerful tool that can offer presence of mind amid difficult situations and amusement during boring encounters. This happens because we manage to approach things from a more analytical perspective and allow ourselves to control the narrative of each circumstance.
In the rest of this maxim, Nietzsche goes on to criticize the dearth of psychological observation among his fellow Germans and describes it as a malady of his time. He wonders why people let this rich source of entertainment get away from them and bashes their inability to find pleasure in depth.
Too close. If we live in too close proximity to a person, it is as if we kept touching a good etching with our bare fingers; one day we have poor, dirty paper in our hands and nothing more. A human being’s soul is likewise worn down by continual touching; at least it finally appears that way to us–we never see its original design and beauty again. One always loses by all-too-intimate association with women and friends; and sometimes one loses the pearl of his life in the process.
In this maxim, Friedrich Nietzsche highlights an idea expressed by many thinkers across history. 2 Familiarity kills respect and, in a romantic relationship, even lust. Constant exposure to the everyday nuances of another person may breed discomfort and a lack of respect towards the other person’s competencies.
Nietzsche logically draws inspiration for this maxim from the sad endings most of his relationships had to face. He was a wild contrarian and could easily express himself in provocative ways that would unavoidably cause friction and conflict. Moreover, whenever he would allow others to taste a part of his vulnerable character, he wouldn’t receive the appreciation he would expect. In turn, he would grow resent toward both others and himself for allowing too much proximity to “poison” their kinship.
This struggle is real and it manifests itself in different ways throughout our lives. Niccolo Machiavelli expressed a similar concern while adumbrating in “The Prince” that it is better to be feared than to be loved.
I think that the reason such concerns are expressed so often is that we usually fail to strike a balance between pragmatism and romanticism. These two forces are mutually exclusive but that doesn’t necessarily suggest that we can’t successfully vacillate between the two. The key here is self-honesty and the establishment of pragmatic expectations on all levels of our relationships.
The hour-hand of life. Life consists of rare, isolated moments of the greatest significance, and of innumerably many intervals, during which at best the silhouettes of those moments hover about us. Love, springtime, every beautiful melody, mountains, the moon, the sea-all these speak completely to the heart but once, if in fact they ever do get a chance to speak completely. For many men do not have those moments at all, and are themselves intervals and intermissions in the symphony of real life.
This aphorism reminded me of Richard Dawkins’ opening lines in “Unweaving the Rainbow”:
“We are going to die and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.”
Experiencing life in its totality is a challenging endeavor, to say the least. That is because we become entangled in the so-called “earthly issues” of the daily grind and we fail to recognize the vastness of various experiences life can offer. Ego is the enemy here and it creates a trap we desperately fail to see. This ego trap is omnipresent and, thus, our willingness to reach self-transcendence becomes a distant hope.
Nietzsche identified this conundrum early on in his life and realized how much of an impact it can have on limiting one’s perception. When he says “during which at best the silhouettes of those moments hover about us” he clearly wants to emphasize how blind we have become in our attempt to identify moments of extraordinary significance. Hence our propensity to experience grandiosity is predicated on how easily we allow ourselves to surrender to the simplicity and complexity of those moments.
The ones that do surrender are the ones who fill their lives with innumerable intervals of significance. The ones that don’t, become themselves the intervals and the intermissions.
Learning to love. We must learn to love, learn to be kind, and this from earliest youth; if education or chance give us no opportunity to practice these feelings, our soul becomes dry and unsuited even to understanding the tender inventions of loving people. Likewise, hatred must be learned and nurtured, if one wishes to become a proficient hater: otherwise the germ for that, too, will gradually wither.
It might be just me, but I sense a degree of irony in this particular maxim. This is something not so common in Nietzsche’s works, so I am a bit reserved apropos my interpretation. I am mainly referring to the last sentence of the aphorism where he mentions that “hatred must be learned and nurtured, if one wishes to become a proficient hater: otherwise the germ for that, too, will gradually wither.”
This interesting remark alludes to the possibility that hate is a perpetual state of discontent that can be nourished just like every other state known to man. One isn’t born full of hate or full of love, but, according to one’s influences, he or she can cultivate a biased sense of how to perceive the idea of love and hate.
The irony in the last remark lies in the use of the term proficient when describing a hater’s ability to hate. For some, exercising hate might even reach a professional level and could create a level of dependency on this catastrophic feeling. However, Nietzsche identifies that this exercise is a conscious one and that, most of the time, it is pursued rather than randomly acquired.
With regard to love, Nietzsche puts emphasis on the idea that love needs to be learned. Indeed, love, although it is considered the preeminent feeling, it also constitutes one of our most arduous quests. Love isn’t something that transpires organically. Love is something that needs to be cultivated. If this fails to occur, one will lack the capacity to show love and, most possibly, he or she will be oblivious to the love offered by those who actually know how to exercise it.
Boredom and play. Need forces us to do the work whose product will quiet the need; we are habituated to work by the ever-new awakening of needs. But in those intervals when our needs are quieted and seem to sleep, boredom overtakes us. What is that? It is the habit of working as such, which now asserts itself as a new, additional need; the need becomes the greater, the greater our habit of working, perhaps even the greater our suffering from our needs. To escape boredom, man works either beyond what his usual needs require, or else he invents play, that is, work that is designed to quiet no need other than that for working in general. He who is tired of play, and has no reason to work because of new needs, is sometimes overcome by the longing for a third state that relates to play as floating does to dancing, as dancing does to walking, a blissful, peaceful state of motion: it is the artist’s and philosopher’s vision of happiness.
This is one of the instances where Nietzsche’s genius oozes from every word. A man of his magnitude couldn’t really refrain from philosophizing on the connection between work, boredom, and play.
Work is the result of a drive enacted by our desire to satisfy a need. When that need is satisfied, boredom creeps in, in an attempt to shift our awareness towards a different need.
In that context, boredom becomes one of the most beneficial elements in a person’s life. Boredom morphs into the catalyst for the pursuit of higher needs and aspirations.
In Friedrich Nietzsche’s words: “To escape boredom, man works either beyond what his usual needs require, or else he invents play, that is, work that is designed to quiet no need other than that for working in general.”
Notice here that Nietzsche considers play a viable alternative to boredom and doing so he elevates play to a higher level. Then he goes on to suggest that there is actually one more level a person can reach that enhances the idea of play. That level is not precisely named and, in my regard, the philosopher does so because he considers that state an idiosyncratic one.
bears the responsibility for defining that state, which results, as Nietzsche points out, “in a blissful, peaceful state of motion: it is the artist’s and philosopher’s vision of happiness.”
Play is also one of the most significant activities suggested in the “30 Challenges-30 Days-Zero Excuses” project. A project espoused by 1000s of people that wanted to find ways to reinvent their lives and adopt great habits. Check it out here.
Addendum – Aphorism 6
Love and justice. Why do we overestimate love to the disadvantage of justice, saying the nicest things about it, as if it were a far higher essence than justice? Isn’t love obviously more foolish? Of course, but for just that reason so much more pleasant for everyone. Love is foolish, and possesses a rich horn of plenty; from it she dispenses her gifts to everyone, even if he does not deserve them, indeed, even if he does not thank her for them. She is as nonpartisan as rain, which (according to the Bible24 and to experience) rains not only upon the unjust, but sometimes soaks the just man to the skin, too.
I will not elaborate a lot on this one. I just added it as an addendum because I consider the distinction between love and justice a rather interesting one. Justice should indeed be regarded as a higher value than love since the all-encompassing nature of love fails to show appreciation to those who actually deserve it and allows those who don’t to consider themselves worthy of her.
“Human, all too Human” contains around 638 maxims. Some aphorisms might be considered caustic for some but, all in all, this book can be characterized as a legendary compendium of wisdom.
My hope with this article was to shed some light on parts of the history, ideas, and style that distinguish this prolific figure and help you draw inspiration from his life and teachings.
Growing up, I realized that you should choose your idols wisely.
Friedrich Nietzsche is certainly one of my wisest picks.
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 “Aphorisms on love and hate,” Penguin Classics
Here is the video essay version of the post:
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