Friedrich Nietzsche Biography

Biographical History of Existentialism

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A difficult, complex, and controversial philosopher, Nietzsche has been claimed as part of a number of difficult philosophical movements. Because his work was consciously designed to break from the philosophy of the past, it is perhaps expected that much of what would come after him would expand upon the themes he discussed and therefore claim him as their forerunner. Although Friedrich Nietzsche was not technically an existentialist and he probably would have rejected the label, it is true that he focused upon a number of key themes which would later become the focus of existentialist philosophers.

One of the reasons that Nietzsche can be so difficult as a philosopher, despite the fact that his writing is generally quite lucid and engaging, is the fact that he created no organized and coherent system into which all of his different ideas might fit and relate to one another. Nietzsche explored a number of different themes, always seeking to provoke and question prevailing systems, but never moved to create a new system to replace them.

There is no evidence that Nietzsche was familiar with the work of Søren Kierkegaard but we can see here a strong similarity in his disdain for complex metaphysical systems, although his reasons were slightly different. According to Nietzsche, any complete system must be founded upon self-evident truths, but it is precisely the job of philosophy to question those so-called truths; therefore any philosophical system must be, by definition, dishonest.

Nietzsche also agreed with Kierkegaard that one of the serious flaws of past philosophical systems was their failure to pay enough attention to the values and experiences of individuals in favor of abstract formulations about the nature of the universe. He wanted to return the individual human being to the focus of philosophical analysis, but in so doing he found that people’s earlier faith in that which structured and supported society had collapsed and this would, in turn, lead to the collapse of traditional morality and traditional social institutions. What Nietzsche was talking about, of course, was faith in Christianity and God.

Here Nietzsche diverged most significantly from Kierkegaard. Whereas the latter advocated a radically individualistic Christianity that was divorced from the traditional but collapsing Christian norms, Nietzsche argued that Christianity and theism should be dispensed with entirely. Both philosophers, though, treated the individual human being as someone who needed to find their own way, even if that meant a rejection of religious tradition, of cultural norms, and even of popular morality.

In Nietzsche, this sort of person was his “Übermensch”; in Kierkegaard, it was the “Knight of Faith.” For both Kierkegaard and Nietzshe, the individual human being needs to commit to values and beliefs which may seem irrational, but which nevertheless affirm their lives and their existence. In many ways, they weren’t so far apart after all.