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  • Writer's pictureMark Legg

Preliminary, existential reflections on Nietzsche

Updated: Jul 15, 2023

Nietzsche presides over the 20th and 21st-century as a prophet. Though deceased, he lives on through hundreds of millions of disciples who continue to misunderstand and undermine his ideals, imperfect, broken, and twisted as they often were even in their original form.


The modern, and first reflections on the Ubermensch


His disciples today are unwitting; they are mindless followers of their own pleasures, affections, and conglomerate perceptions, yet do they not worship the will to power? In the eyes of Nietzsche’s philosophy, they are self-justifying weaklings who observe their own follies and flaws or take no note of them. They ignore the festering rot of laziness and despair in their own lives. They stigmatize and shame in their un-stigmatizing. They crunch through their dry, weak leaves of un-thought, they sacrifice their souls at the altar of hypocrisy, all the while touting their strength or weakness in the name of their own power. They do not conquer themselves, even in the slightest. Their flimsy ideals drift in the wind or possess them wholly and do not let them think or breath, not truly.


The spirit of the Ubermensch, the "overman," whisps away.


Yet is not this faith of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch placed in a unthrapos (like a utopia, a “not-place”)? For as technology increases and we master our environment, the technology masters us, and as slaves to it we stray farther from the possibility of the Ubermensch. The vision of the Ubermench was a pipe dream to begin with, right? Maybe. Perhaps what we see today in the mindless millions are those without tact, with hollow beauty, with faked boldness, with too much cheap aesthetic. It sounds like the people he ruthlessly mocked in his age, and yet, they do it all in his name—like priests burning witches at the stake in the name of Christ.


Perhaps in this, where all humans become their own Ubermensch, is Nietzsche’s true inevitable end: madness and mere idiocy. For each man to claim to impose in his own life the Ubermench’s self-created values and claim that he is the master in his own life, yet without the mastery of his forefathers to the beginning of time, whose mind is light of true issues and wholly ignorant of his own presuppositions, without the flimsiest awareness of his own drop in the puddle of his time’s moral zeitgeist; what utter and absolute foolishness for him to claim that title!


We cannot trust the spirit of the Ubermensch to the masses: simply gaze upon the wasted desert of our culture; look upon this teenage wasteland and despair.


Tyranny


And yet, when sheep follow their human Ubermensch, what comes of it? If you grant the title of Ubermensch to one man, and the sheep follow, what destruction it leads to. Ah, and when the human Will in a single person becomes transcendent, tyranny reigns. The Great Cultural Revolution, the Bolshevik revolution—with it, reinventing truth, and reality to its own tyrannical, idealistic ends; it becomes “the way the truth and the life,” and then its sheep despair under the weight of reality, for reality does not wait for the divine word of the dictator—it serves itself, and it is a cruel master wolf that opened its maw to swallow more lives that the two world wars combined.


Ah well. Enough ranting about today, about even myself. If we put on Nietzsche’s spectacles for too long, who knows what kind of maddening rabbit hole we will tumble into.


The weight of Nietzsche’s ideas is wildly astounding, they stun and force ponderance, and draw out laughs then draw out silence, then agonized weeping, then despair, then violent hope in nothing, then a desperate plea for an editor to time travel and do a bit of work with him. His ideas also seem to crack apart in madness and drift into the winds of insanity. I constantly flip between two extremes: praising Nietzsche’s genius and feeling disgusted by his truly delusional pride in the face of reality. Sometimes he’s brilliant, sometimes he spits in the face of reality, sometimes he’s just a bad writer.


But think, what is insanity but the 2 percent in any culture? May not the Ezekiel have been considered mad? What is mad may be right, right? Perhaps. Perhaps human cultures help calculate the real value of ideas in reality by testing and behold, the test arrived and passed, and we have arrived at our society’s un-values today. The rule of 2 percent or whereabouts there applies to Nietzsche, and yet behold: a prophet.


As with all ideals and utopias, one may say, “We did not achieve this or that, because it did not truly hold to the ideal! If only the ideal would truly manifest itself…” We continue to hear this repeated with communism.


Perhaps, perhaps, that ideal simply cannot manifest itself in reality accordingly.

Maybe the Ubermensch spirit is just a bad idea.


I do not possess the acuity or familiarity yet to understand Nietzsche very deeply, perhaps no one can. For any who say I misinterpret his ideas of the Ubermensch, his thoughts on morality, yes you’re probably correct. But here I am, doing my best to wade through the confusing, mad ravings and beautiful poetry Thus Spoke Zarathustra.


More general thoughts and meanderings

For now, some more preliminary thoughts. Nietzsche blows apart whole institutions with his pen, and his mild manners are dropped the moment he frantically poured over papers. I have become fairly certain of one thing: he was no nihilist. How could anyone ever read Nietzsche and say he held to Nihilism? I know why: because perhaps his ideas lead to the cliff’s edge of the precipice of nihilism.


Or, perhaps when we peer over the edge, we see that black nothingness’ maw stretching out before us, and the bottom is unseen, and to anyone not taking the plunge, it is pure nihilism. The darkness would never end, they may say. Perhaps. Indeed, likely so.

Yet I think I see dimly over that cliff’s edge when I put on his small, round spectacles and see through his sickly eyes; and behold, something which appears firm to stand on down the dark abyss. He sees passion, primal, beautiful passions, self-control, the will to power and strength, he sees art and truth. All good and wonderful things. He believes that awaits one who is strong enough in his spirit to dive into the darkness and slam into that ground, then rise above all else and overcome existence. I think.


Yet I know this platform too, even if it is not a mirage, will be swept away from a flood of judgment and the coming wrath—this appears quite certain to me. The Ultimate and Holy will meet the Finite and Profane, and even that firm, brave leap of faith that existentialists make down to secure ground past leagues of darkness will crumble beneath its power. His powerful syntax and authoritative blows of meaning hidden in prose and poetry peel back the skin of hypocrisy in Christians and “manners,” certainly, but while Nietzsche’s critiques match whole systems of thought and all of human history, his “will” and pen perhaps match human history, yet they do not match God’s.

When these ideas meet the ever more paradoxical, the even stronger, more significant paradox, when, in short, he meets the gospel, he finds power and the straggling weakness of fake power in the hands of the poor and crippled and delusional that becomes true power in its submission. This paradox need not lead to a rejection, nor falsity based on the inevitable, final hypocrisy of following Christ. Undermining that attack of Nietzsche can be rectified by the Logos, and also by reason, and last of all, by grace—by Dostoevsky’s kiss on the Cardinal. That overwhelming force of grace slaps Nietzsche’s paradox with a further, deeper paradox, which the poor in spirit more readily grasp.

Suffice to say, with respect to Nietzsche’s ideas, I feel the weight of his destructive words, which tears down the ridiculousness of his culture, of priests, of scholars, of even poets. It’s easy to feel as though once his words clear the forest of ideas around him like a blazing fire, lightning from his tongue, nothing but barren darkness and ash remain. Yet he believed this would make way for a new life, and to me, at this point, it seems as though our will to morph our attitude and face up to the truth about our state of affairs is what brings that life. As he tore down value after value, system after system, he firmly believed new values would grow like a wildflower, rawer and more truthful than any others before—a return to pre-Socratic thinking.


Our grappling with existence and then finding our own purpose in art and strength are what provide a kind of meaning, a hope, for Nietzsche. And so, I wonder if the Ubermensch does not simply refer to an ideal, a spirit, rather than some kind of literal savior. In fact, I would be surprised if it did. Nonetheless, I think the self-creation from Nietzsche lacks the muscle of a good answer to these problems he brings up. I do appreciate some of his wisdom: for instance, he preaches that we ought to take on reality with a lightness about us, an air of nonchalance in the face of fate, while we nonetheless use our place in existence to leverage meaning for ourselves. Let me quote a passage from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, with the heading: “On those who are sublime.”


An excerpt, he has some good, not merely profound, ideas

In this passage, he speaks of a powerful man who seems close to the Ubermensch ideal, he’s strong and forceful, he’s defeated dragons, his will is full of strength, he has a “bull’s neck,” and so he is “sublime.”


Nietzsche writes speaking as the prophet Zarathustra,

He subdued monsters, he solved riddles; but he must still redeem his own monsters and riddles, changing them into heavenly children. As yet his knowledge has not learned to smile and to be without jealousy; as yet his torrential passions has not become still in beauty. Verily, it is not in satiety that his desire shall grow silent and be submerged, but in beauty. Gracefulness is part of the graciousness of the great-soul… no violent will can attain the beautiful by exertion. A little more, a little less: precisely this counts for much here, this matters most here. To stand with relaxed muscles and unharnessed will: that is most difficult of all of you who are sublime. When power becomes gracious and descends into the visible—such decent I call beauty.

(Translation by Walter Kaufmann.)


Here, Nietzsche praises those who are sublime, the great composers, the great warriors, the great writers, the great leaders, great to such a degree as to deserve the title sublime. Yet, by pure force of will and genius, they achieve things, but are they precise? Are they relaxed? Are their lives lived in a beautiful manner? As Nietzsche says in the next passages, are they capable of great “evil” (power) but yet decide to be gracious and good instead? This kind of lightness of feet when approaching life is what marks the greatest kind of person, what makes the Ubermensch. We can think of an arrogant, obsessed person, willful in what they want, yet easily mocked because they take themselves so seriously, that, I think, is the kind of person Zarathustra is addressing.

And it is good advice.


The worst thing Nietzsche seems to hate is willful ignorance digested in the belly of fear. This kind of weak morality raises those who are weak to the place of good and brings low the people who are strong and calls them evil. This morality he saw in Christianity. Instead, he said, live life to the fullest! Now, he misconstrues Christ in a manner, but his assessment of many Christians at his time seems to hit their mark, but it is largely irrelevant to the truth of the matter. I may delve into this idea more later.

All of this thinking gave rise to a desire to further diving into existentialism, which I possess an indelible draw towards (though my life has been blessed and easy). I want to bring the gospel to bear against existentialism. Some of the greatest thinkers already have, like Kierkegaard and seemingly Dostoevsky as well. And what a task! For truly, the insights and ponderings of existentialism and that mode of thinking must also lead to the gospel—it must. In fact, as deep as existentialism goes, grace floods it just as deeply. As the shorn crevice of the canyon in the human heart opens wide and deep, the flooding ocean of grace and transcendent holiness, the brute truth of the matter, fills it to the brim and beyond.


This preliminary existential reflection on Nietzsche will hopefully flourish into a lifelong wrestling with Nietzsche’s ideas and existentialist philosophers. I have in my mind to write a book about existentialism and the gospel one day.

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