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Overcoming Nihilism: The Revaluation of All Values
An Interpretive Profile of Nietzsche’s Philosophical Project


Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863-1944)
Friedrich Nietzsche (1906)

What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism… For one should make no mistake about the meaning of the title that this gospel of the future wants to bear. “The Will to Power: Attempt at a Revaluation of All Values”—in this formulation a countermovement finds expression, regarding both principle and task; a movement that in some future will take the place of this perfect nihilism—but presupposes it, logically and psychologically, and certainly can come only after and out of it. For why has the advent of nihilism become necessary? Because the values we have had hitherto thus draw their final consequence; because nihilism represents the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideals—because we must experience nihilism before we can find out what value these “values” really had—We require, sometime, new values.

                        —Nietzsche, from the Preface to The Will to Power (Nov. 1887—March 1888): Sect. 2-4

We will sketch an interpretive profile of Nietzsche’s philosophical project in three successive, methodical stages: 1) philosophical focus, 2) diagnosis of nihilism, and 3) the project to overcome nihilism through a revaluation of all values. Our purpose is to provide an initial, broad philosophical background or framework for accurately interpreting Nietzsche’s various critiques of religion, morality, and philosophy.

A. Nietzsche’s Unifying Philosophical Focus: The Historical Problem of Nihilism

Nietzsche’s fundamental, unifying philosophical focus provides an appropriate starting point for delineating the broad contours of his philosophy. Stated succinctly: Nietzsche is philosophically preoccupied with what he calls nihilism, a cultural and historical crisis of value characteristic of Western society. According to Nietzsche, this crisis of nihilism originates in Western religion, morality, and philosophy and is practically exhibited in historical institutions, practices, attitudes, and values. But before we examine Nietzsche’s detailed diagnosis of nihilism, we must take stock of the general features of his unifying focus on nihilism.

1. Systematic Unity

Some sympathetic and hostile critics have interpreted Nietzsche’s philosophical writings as an unsystematic hodgepodge of disconnected, even disjointed, viewpoints and arguments. Others cite a prominent doctrine, such as perspectivism or eternal recurrence, as the central organizing theme of his philosophy. We will adopt the interpretation, advocated by Walter Kauffman, among others, that the systematic unity of Nietzsche’s work consists in his critical focus upon a complex cultural, historical phenomenon that he terms nihilism. Nietzsche’s historical, problem-oriented focus on nihilism as a cultural crisis of Western civilization, in contrast to a predominantly doctrinal focus, provides an appropriately broad interpretive framework for accurately discerning the mutual interdependence, and distinctive contributions, of his diverse critiques of religion, morality, and philosophy.

2. Complex Problematic (French, problématique)

Nietzsche’s systematic or unifying interest in nihilism, therefore, constitutes it (nihilism) as a complex network of interrelated problems or problem-set (problématique). Accordingly, his diverse, critical examinations of religion, morality, philosophy, modernity (his historical present), the human-all-too-human, etc., may best be interpreted as a network of individual, yet interconnected, thematic perspectives on the complex, multi-faceted historical problem of nihilism.

3. Historical Character

Nietzsche’s philosophical focus is, in contrast to the majority of Western philosophy up to that time, clearly historical in character. In this regard, Nietzsche’s philosophy is similar to other 19th-century philosophers and thinkers (Marx, Kierkegaard, etc.) who followed Hegel. However, the precise manner in which they are historical differs considerably. The specific historical character of Nietzsche’s philosophy may be outlined in terms of its constituent components:

a) Historical object of inquiry
b) Historical form of consciousness, reflection, or critique
c) Historically-oriented genealogical method
d) Historical context of inquiry: Modernity or the Present Age

B) Nietzsche’s Diagnosis of European Nihilism

1. The Historical and Cultural Sources of European Nihilism:

“We have measured the value of the world according to categories that refer to a purely fictitious world.  Final conclusion: All the values by means of which we have tried so far to render the world estimable for ourselves […] have proved inapplicable and therefore devaluated the world.” (WP, 12)

“A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist.” (WP, 585)

“The supreme values in whose service man should live […] were erected over man to strengthen their voice, as if they were commands of God, as “reality,” as the “true” world, as a hope and future world.  Now that the shabby origin of these values is becoming clear, the universe seems to have lost value, seems ‘meaningless’” (WP, 7).

a) Judeo-Christian religious tradition: otherworldly orientation (heaven, immortality, the afterlife as reward and punishment, a transcendent and eternal divine realm, etc.) as a devaluation of this world: the ascetic ideal (spiritualization of our animal or sensual nature), hatred of the earth, reactive repression of natural instincts, denial or suppression of the senses, physiological weakness, slave morality, the herd instinct, the psychological state of réssentiment as the birth of the moral values “good” and “evil,” historical teleology (history as the progressive unfolding of God’s plan), and the psychological origin and need for “God.”

b) Western philosophical tradition: prejudices of the philosophers, beginning with Plato particularly (metaphysical positing of another, higher, transcendent, true reality beyond this world of mere appearance) universal truth, moral absolutism, the spectator attitude of disinterested theoretical inquiry, historical teleology (history as the progressive unfolding of natural law, Reason, etc.), philosophical theology, the ascetic ideal (self-denial, spiritualization or idealization of our animal nature, etc.)

“The nihilistic question “for what?” is rooted in the old habit of supposing that the goal must be put up, given, demanded from outside – by some superhuman authority. Having unlearned faith in that, one still follows the old habit and seeks another authority that can speak unconditionally and command goals and tasks. The authority of conscience now steps up front…. Or the authority of reason…(WP, 20)

2. Nietzsche’s Own Historical Present: Nihilistic Décadence and the “death of God.”

a) The Death of God: European man’s highest values have devaluated themselves— “What does nihilism mean? – that the highest values devaluate themselves” (WP, 2). Transitional nihilism as the disorienting loss of transcendent goals, purposes, foundations, meanings, values, and orientation; decline of natural vitality (symptoms of décadence: decline of vital strength, natural instincts, affirmation of life, etc.). Cf. Nietzsche’s parable, The Madman, sect. 125 of The Gay Science (1882). Nietzsche: “We are losing the center of gravity by virtue of which we have lived; we are lost for a while” (WP, 30).

b) New Modern Idols: human progress, scientific enlightenment, political and legal egalitarianism, liberal democratic institutions, human rights, civil liberties, constitutional or legal justice, etc.

c) The Reductive Leveling of the Individual to the Herd: enervation, evisceration, emasculation; loss of natural instincts, vitality, and strength; dissipation of the existing individual in the crowd, herd, or masses; disdain for the order of rank, individual greatness, noble superiority; age of the “last men”

C. Nietzsche’s Project to Overcome Nihilism: The Revaluation of All Values

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity.  Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it – all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary – but love it.” (EH, “Why I am So Clever” 10)

“The highest state a philosopher can attain: to stand in a Dionysian relationship to existence – my formula for this is amor fati.  It is part of this state to perceive not merely the necessity of those sides of existence hitherto denied, but their desirability; and not their desirability merely in relation to the sides hitherto affirmed (perhaps as their complement or precondition), but for their own sake, as the more powerful, more fruitful, truer sides of existence, in which its will finds clearer expression.” (WP, 1041)

Overcoming nihilism, man, and oneself: the revaluation of all values (critique of religion, morality, and philosophy); Zarathustra and the overman (Ger., übermensch); the will to power; Dionysus against the Crucified; genealogy of the “shabby origins” of morality (beyond good and evil); amor fati (love of fate) and the great Yes to life, the great health; we free spirits, good Europeans, or higher types.