Study Guide

Friedrich Nietzsche Buzzwords

Apollonian/Dionysian

I was the first thinker to notice (some would say "invent") the distinction between the Apollonian and Dionysian artistic impulses in ancient Greek tragedy. While this may not sound like a big deal, I assure you that it totally is: the distinction helps frame my entire philosophy.

Before I get into that, let me explain what "Apollonian" and "Dionysian" actually mean. It's quite simple, actually: the former is named for Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, whereas the latter is named for Dionysius, who had the much merrier job of being the Greek god of wine and partying.

"So what's the diff?" you ask. Well, the Apollonian impulse symbolizes restraint, deliberation, and sobriety, whereas the Dionysian impulse is ecstatic, non-rational, and instinctual.

The balance between these two elements is what made ancient Greek tragedy great, and I'm a firm believer that theater went downhill when Euripides tried to contain the Dionysian within the Apollonian, rather than keep a balance between the two elements. Euripides, like Sophocles, was all about knowledge; he didn't like to admit that there were instinctive, non-rational impulses that were at least as valid as knowledge and rationality.

Now, to be honest, the Dionysian element has always appealed more to me. My philosophy is all about recognizing the instinctive and not-always-rational drives that motivate human behavior. After all, humans are just self-conscious animals, right?

Death of God

It's more of a buzzphrase than a buzzword, but I couldn't resist including this. You've surely heard the phrase God is dead before, yeah? (If you haven't, you need to get out more. Or stay in more. With books.) That was all me, baby.

Well, okay, Hegel technically said it first, but he didn't really go into any clear detail as to what it meant (which was something very different from what I meant, anyway).

When I say God is dead, I don't mean that there was actually a God at one time who then went on to die. If there was a God, how could he die, anyway? That's stupid. What I actually meant was that belief in God has begun to wither away, and the values that Western civilization has been built upon have begun to wither away with that belief, because these beliefs are derived from a belief in God.

I think this is a good thing, since it gives us—or at least those of use who are great souls—the opportunity to create new values for ourselves, values that don't depend on the whims of some make-believe cosmic lawgiver. Now, I wouldn't be the ocean of insight that I so obviously am if I didn't also recognize that other, weaker souls will collapse into nihilism as belief in God continues to erode. That doesn't make me a nihilist, though.

What makes a nihilist, you ask? Allow me to explain...

Nihilism

If you asked me to sum up my philosophy in one sentence, I would tell you that you're a moron and that I couldn't possibly summarize my many writings in one meager sentence. But if you went on to hold a razor to my 'stache and threaten me with a shave, I might grumble that "it's all about overcoming nihilism."

Nihilism is, in its most literal, dictionary-definition sense, belief in nothing. If that's still too vague, you could say that it's the belief that there is no meaning; it's the belief that life is meaningless (as we all believe at various times in our teen years).

In the 19th century (and, now that I think about it, the 20th and 21st centuries, as well), Christians often accused atheists of nihilism, since for some reason it was thought that one couldn't believe that there was any meaning to life without also believing that there was some kind of cosmic lawgiver in the sky. What I happened to notice is that the exact opposite is often true.

You see, for Christians (though the same could be said of adherents of mostreligions), what really matters is the afterlife, not this life. Like the opening credits to a film, "earthly life" is just something we have to sit through before the "real thing" begins. In other words, the life you're living at this very moment is simply a means to an end; it's just a long and boring test that has no inherent value.

Now if you ask me, it's this belief that truly devalues life and renders it meaningless. Atheists such as myself realize we have just one life to live, and we try to inject as much meaning into every moment as possible. So, I ask you: who's the real nihilist, eh?

I'm not one of those guys who is all, "Life is meaningless, so I'm just gonna forget about everything and enjoy myself." That's nihilism. I think it's necessary to live life to the fullest in order to find or create a meaningful life. Sound hard? That's because it is. I never said life was supposed to be easy—and that's why I have it out for both lazy Christians and lazy nihilists. Expecting life to be easy is a sign of weakness.

Master/Slave Morality

This is yet another well-known distinction that I invented. One thing I'm particularly famous for—and I'm famous for a lot of things—is my unique take on morality.

Once upon a time, the sophisticated, noble people in society (the masters," as I call them) considered such qualities as pride and cruelty to be good, while humility, meekness, and compassion were considered "bad," since they were associated with the society's lower classes (what I call the "slaves").

The slaves resented the masters' nobility and individualism like. It's a petty sort of resentment (I call it ressentiment, which is French and sounds prettier) that you often find in mediocre people—and that's exactly my point. Eventually, the mediocre people managed to revolt in a most ingenious way: by switching what was considered "good" and "bad" so that they, and not the strong and the noble, would be considered "good."

It isn't until Christianity shows up that you can really see slave morality in action. With Christianity, all of a sudden, the things that were once considered by the strong to be base and common (in other words, "bad") became celebrated as virtues—"the meek shall inherit the earth," anyone?—and the qualities exalted by the master morality of the nobility (such as pride or pitilessness) became not merely "bad," but downright evil.

But let's get one thing straight: I may have a lot of bad stuff to say about slave morality its encouragement of mediocrity, but I'm not advocating a return to master morality, either. That would be a step backward (we need to create new values, you see), and, to be perfectly honest, I kind of admire the chutzpah that slave moralists like Jesus displayed when they essentially created our modern notions of "good" and "evil."

Basically, my point is this: the will to power lies behind even our most basic ideas about what's right and what's wrong. Which leads me to my next buzzword…

Will to Power

This is probably my buzziest buzzword. It's so buzzy, in fact, that it was supposed to be the title of my most important book, which I never got around to finishing because, well, I frankly lost my marbles. (If you go to Amazon, you'll find that there's a book credited to me called The Will to Power, but I should warn you that it's made up of half-baked notes that were assembled and published by my awful sister well after I had died.)

"So what is this brilliant concept?" you ask. Allow me to explain.

The "will to power" is a psychological drive that motivates all human behavior. At its root, it refers to our desire to become masters over everything. For instance, Genghis Khan's invasion of, well, everything would be a rather obvious example of the will to power in action.

Yet you can find the will to power at work behind other, not-so-obvious activities: an ascetic monk's self-denial, for instance, is a will to a different kind of power. Unable (or unwilling) to invade foreign countries or win a simple bar fight, the monk takes a different approach. By means of fasting, self-flagellation (ouch), strict chastity, and all that other stuff you might find Templars doing in a Dan Brown novel, the monk is able to at least gain mastery over himself.

I think that everything we do comes from this will to power. We might want different things: political power, good grades, self-mastery, physical perfection—you name it. It can take a lot of different forms, but at base, it's always some kind of power that we want.

Übermensch

"Superman" would probably be the best translation of Übermensch, but since I don't want to taint the Übermensch by associating him with the bucket of BO-RING that was Man of Steel, how about we leave it untranslated? No? Okay, okay—you can call him "overman" if you want. Heaven forbid you pronounce an umlaut now and then.

I first presented the idea of the Übermensch in my work of philosophical fiction, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In that book, the Übermensch is the person who, having overcome (natch) conventional morality and society, creates himself anew, sort of like a phoenix rising from the ashes. He creates a whole new morality, too; it's kind of a package deal.

The Übermensch is the polar opposite of what I called "the last man," a complete and utter bore who is perfectly happy to do whatever he's told to do as long as he's fed three times a day and kept warm. Because of this, there are no great individuals among the last men, which results in the inevitable decline of humanity as a whole. This is why I argue in my book Thus Spoke Zarathustra that we must pave the way for the Übermensch if we ever want to achieve greatness.

Ressentiment

Being a hardcore Francophile, I decided to use the French word for "resentment" when devising one of my most important concepts—alas, my native German just didn't have a word that would have captured what I meant.

Ressentiment refers to the reactionary nature of slave morality. You see, instead of looking inward for moral inspiration and then creating its own morality spontaneously, slave morality first creates an imaginary, external enemy and then defines its own morality in opposition to this enemy's morality. In other words, it's totally reactive rather than creative.

Because I'm Nietzsche, I just can't help but use my only truly worthy opponent—Jesus Christ—as a prime example of ressentiment in action. You see, in order to create his morality, Jesus had to first create this imaginary figure called the Devil, who is really just a personification of the noble class's morality. Jesus needed the figure of the Devil so that he could devise his morality in reaction to the Devil's morality.

"The Devil is proud," you say? Well, then—we'll make pride "evil" and humility "good." The Devil wants to be all-powerful, eh? We'll make sure that everyone knows that the desire for domination a sin. Oh, J.C., you're just so predictable. Just rolling along, reacting to a big straw man. How about you get creative, dude?

The irony is that Christianity eventually succeeded at dominating our culture. Yep, ressentiment is just full of paradoxes.

Eternal Return

This is the idea that everyone will live every second of their lives over and over again, throughout eternity. If that sounds horrible to you, I'll bet you were raised on fairy tales of heaven and find the idea of real life terrifying and horrible.

It's not so much that I think everything will actually keep happening over and over (though that's totally possible); it's more that I think you should live your life in such a way that you wouldn't mind doing everything over and over again. I'll be honest: the idea freaks me out, but I love the idea that you might get to a point where you'd be like, "Yeah, okay, bring it on. I'll do it again. And again, and again."

If all this sounds wonderful, then let me introduce you to your fellow Übermenschen, because you're obviously a strong sort of person with no need of mythology. You're unafraid to say yes to life, so I say yes to you.