On considering the existential paradigm regarding the human condition, it is evident that this perspective encompasses a multitude of outlooks depending upon which author is selected for study. However, within this myriad of information there does appear to be certain themes which are common throughout and therefore essential to understanding human existence. These themes are namely, freedom, meaninglessness, responsibility and choice. Along with Kierkegaard, Nietzsche is considered as one of the forefathers with regard to existential thought. Although notoriously ambiguous and open to interpretation, with Nietzsche’s thought often being misused and employed for corrupt means involving instances of domination and acts of cruelty, I believe his philosophy can be considered extremely insightful and relevant to the enigma of the human condition and the creation of meaning within it.
Nietzsche contended that life was totally irrational and asserted that via history, essentially the dogma of the church and the doctrine of science, humans had become alienated from their intrinsic being which is one founded upon the will to power; the instinctual energy of life. Rejecting all meta-narratives Nietzsche endeavours to redefine truth from a holistic perspective based within the reality of a beings interpretative experience. Via recognising that there are no ultimate truths in life, along with accepting the realisation that suffering as well as joy is an unavoidable aspect of the human condition, the ability to harness and channel the will to power can enable an individual to become the Ubermensch, whom in full awareness possesses the freedom to create and lead an autonomous and meaningful existence.
For Nietzsche, history can be viewed as a shifting series of values and interpretations. ‘The ‘meaning’ of a thing ‘is’ the history of interpretations that have taken hold of it.' Nietzsche believed that the two fundamental protagonists responsible for the fragmentation of the human condition are the realms of faith and science; ‘all philosophies, religions, sciences and other ideologies that have organised life around the ideal of the beyond have done so at the cost of denying life and alienating humanity from natural instincts and drives'.
Christianity and the church with its promised reward of eternal salvation in return for good and appropriate behaviour, restricts an individual’s understanding of self via conditioning them to deny certain emotions, sensations or passions considered sinful or bad and detrimental to ones prospects come judgement day. Regarding the realm of science with its rational perspective eliminating anything but empirical evidence, this in turn reduces an individual into an objective and mechanistic entity denying the full context of the human condition, once again limiting an individual’s full experience of being. Therefore, on removing religion and the church from the equation reveals to an individual the basic and inescapable existential reality that life isn’t just and fair and contains no auspicious guarantees for the future. The paradigm of science also fails to deliver all of the answers or provide a full picture and understanding regarding human existence so is not a satisfactory alternative either; ‘no one system reveals the entire truth — each organises one point of view, one perspective.' Hence, this highlights the existential principles of freedom and responsibility, ‘ultimate freedom means the absence of external structure, a human does not enter into a well structured universe which has an inherent design but must instead create and be therefore be responsible for his/her own world, choices and actions; from the existential position freedom comes with responsibility.'
Arguably, as a consequence of the age of intellectual enlightenment which promoted the advent of science and its rational pursuit of truth employed to shape human existence, the traditional source of value and meaning which was once located within religious teachings was ultimately de-stabilised, hence leading to a period of time in which Nietzsche infamously announced that ‘God is dead’. This metaphor represents what Nietzsche believed to be an endemic moral decline taking place within the European society during the nineteenth century, which would inevitably lead towards a culture of nihilism consisting of the belief in nothing and rejection of traditional values. However, rather than viewing this as a pessimistic ending for humanity, nihilism for Nietzsche symbolised an opportunity for the renewal and regeneration of values and meaning within human existence.
Nietzsche’s philosophy asserts that nothing is absolute; ‘everything is fallible; everything must be questioned.' With regard to the existentialist perspective this is a key point as existential enquiry can be considered as ‘a process of personal enlightenment that influences the very nature of a person’s way of existing in the world.' Consequently, Nietzsche’s definition of truth is not to be viewed as an independent static structure underpinning the world, but more of a dynamic process representing a style of life being experienced; in essence an interpretation from a particular perspective within the world: ‘as truth is not objective, in like manner, it is not subjective. Since thinking is not wholly rational, disconnected from the body, or independent of the world, the subjective perception, or conception, of truth through the intellect alone is impossible.' An individual’s truth is not simply derived from reason, but is in addition to this a complicated combination of instincts, drives, passions and will situated within a context of life. Therefore for Nietzsche, any attempt by science to observe the world empirically with the self being separate to reality will always fail, as an individual is forever involved within the world therefore cannot take up an impartial and neutral stance to it. ‘Nietzsche’s primary claim is that every natural fact or truth begins as an interpretation of life that wills a version of reality into existence.'
Hence, a central concept which underpins Nietzsche’s philosophy is the will to power; the foundation of all life. The world ‘is’ the will to power; the will to power drives a world of process of becoming rather than being. Emerging from a fundamental chaos, the will to power interprets and defines through shifting power relations. Once again the existential concept of freedom is evident as Nietzsche states ‘the most fearful and fundamental desire in man, his drive for power — this is called freedom.' Essentially the will to power is a synthesis of two energies; the Dionysian and Apollonian. The Dionysian nature is one of spontaneity, consisting of chaos, disorder and primal instincts, whereas the Apollonian nature is one of order, reason and rationality. It is evident that Nietzsche viewed history as alienating an individual’s whole experience via endeavouring to remove or suppress the Dionysian elements of the human equation.
For Nietzsche, both of these characteristics are crucial to the mix, existing in a mutually defining relationship with each other in order to enable the will to power to drive cycles of chaos and order, creation and destruction which are considered essential to the perpetual nature of becoming inherent within the will to power. This dynamic tension supports Nietzsche’s assertions concerning how the renewing and revaluing of human existence via the will to power is possible; the destruction of one culture or system of values allows and encourages another one to emerge.
Whereas for Sartre the characteristic of being and consciousness is considered as the principal essence, for Nietzsche the will to power can be deemed even more primary to this: its origin, the primordial energy behind being and becoming; in effect consciousness is viewed as an effect of one’s will to power not a cause. The drive of the will to power constantly projects an individual forward with the intention of becoming; it is life affirming promoting growth and upward mobility. Therefore, it should be noted that where there is life the will to power is constantly present, in as such that if it is suppressed or neglected it will seek an outlet, whether that manifests in a positive and constructive or negative and destructive sense is dependent upon the current situation encountered. Subsequently, with the interpretative nature of the will to power the potential for abuse is forever apparent.
Hence, with regard to the human condition it is hard to describe or define the will to power in exact terms as it is a different experience to the will to power in an animal or another object. The will to power is reflexive in its nature and therefore evolves and adapts accordingly to the context it is situated, thus the will to power will manifest itself differently in different individuals involving a multitude of cultures, social settings and environments, each having its own particular rules and conditions through which one acquires power; whether that be via archetypal strength, social status or depth of knowledge. Therefore, it can be considered an infinite process of becoming, forever in flux, assuming different forms on different occasions.
Nietzsche posits that man is in itself a form of life that must be overcome, and as a result he proposes a new and alternative attitude required within an individual, that of a free spirit and true philosopher, ‘the Overman’ or ‘Ubermensch’; an individual who possesses the courage to embrace both the comedy and tragedy of human existence, striving to achieve a greater perspective and embark upon an independent journey in life. One who employs their own powers of judgement in seeking truth, thus able to choose and create their own new values and meaning based upon the reality of the human condition, which in turn allows them to affirm their position in the world. Furthermore, the ubermensch’s goal is not just to find oneself, but go beyond this; a state of eternal becoming. This individual does not discover truth external to themselves within the world at large, but cultivates the freedom now available to them to create truth within the context of their own life and existence in essence emphasising their power of choice.
Within the nature of power dynamics there is an inevitable active and/or dominant party on one side and a submissive or passive one on the other. Hence, this is a fundamental aspect of the will to power based life affirming process and an extremely significant point, in that the concept of the will to power is open to misinterpretation and abuse if not approached with careful consideration and understanding; this has been evident throughout history in the form of tyranny; notably World War two and Hitler’s endeavour for domination and conception of the Arian master race.
Although the concept of the ubermensch suggests that in order to become the higher man one may very well need to leave behind even exploit the herd, consisting of the ordinary man to some degree, however, in reality, what defines the ultimate challenge and meaning of the ubermensch and will to power is an individual demonstrating the courage to control, balance and integrate the Dionysian and Apollonian mentalities, so as to manage the internal conflict experienced within themselves. In effect, choosing to accept the responsibility to harness the will to power in oneself with the aim of creating a positive mode of becoming; ‘the will to power is the power of great souls not the might of dictators.' Therefore, a full awareness of the will to power’s dynamic nature which it employs to affirm its existence and being by whatever means necessary in order to increase its power to advance and become is required by an individual: when this reality is fully realised so too is the potential capability of such a drive/instinct along with the responsibility associated with possessing it. Consequently, an acceptance of the entirety of the human condition built upon the will to power, including the awareness of the shadow side of one’s personality can be achieved. Furthermore, the need for stability and integrity required for a positive rather than oppressive outcome is also recognised.
‘The will to power is the ability of the person to interpret and to become themselves and to exist in such ways that they do not, in any moment, detract another person’s ability to choose for themselves: it requires a respect for self, and of that, respect for others.'
On considering the existential factor of meaninglessness regarding human existence, Nietzsche advocates the attainment of courage to embark on the journey for self-knowledge as an essential aspect of becoming a higher man and true philosopher; far too many people drift through life on automatic pilot failing to ask themselves meaningful and insightful questions about their existence necessary in order to attain a greater awareness of being. Nietzsche emphasises this point by asserting that the pursuit and discovery of truth required to become an ubermensch is never an easy path, often weak and undetermined individuals will experience existential angst and hence fail the task, and as a result follow the herd conforming to the truths imposed on them by an external authority or source; denying their freedom and alleviating the burden of responsibility experienced in attempting to live autonomously.
As stated, often individuals will suffer in their present life and in contrast to the existential attitude, fail to take on the responsibility for their existence in the belief that things will eventually improve or they will be compensated in a far off transcendent world experienced after this one. This is nothing more than a form of self-deception and bad faith for Nietzsche, and rather than denying one’s existence in the hope of a better future an individual must take responsibility in the here and now to affirm one’s life in this world, not just via developing an acceptance of their reality but to actually embrace and cultivate a life that one would be happy to live over and over again.
This idea is encompassed within Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence. The notion of eternal recurrence is not to be viewed as a metaphysical proposition, but a hypothetical psychological thought experiment utilised in the attempt to understand and ultimately choose a life worth living; it is the greatest affirmation of one’s freedom. Nietzsche posits this concept as a self-test employed to find and promote meaning and purpose within our lives, the creation of an attitude towards life which is required in order to relive the same events encompassing both the highs and the lows, essentially acknowledging times of suffering as part and parcel of human existence; a test in which an individual accepts their lot and does not desire for anything to be different. In addition to this, the free spirit affirms this chosen life by embodying it thoroughly in full conscious awareness and knowledge throughout their existence.
Nietzsche posits that fundamental to this is the seizing of each and every moment which one finds themself in. Moments are valuable exactly because of their transient nature, hence, one is required to find meaning in every single moment experienced rather than pursuing lost ones or desiring ones which may never materialise. Every moment counts for Nietzsche, as truth which is viewed as a historical process and continuum is constantly recreating itself within the moment. The future and the past are all dependent upon the present moment. A final key feature associated with the concept eternal recurrence is Nietzsche’s belief in ‘amor fati’ or love of fate. This concept represents the situation and circumstances with which an individual finds themselves in over which they have little or no control. As stated, an individual is required to embrace every moment in such a way ‘that one wants nothing to be other than it is, not in the future, not in the past, not in all eternity' therefore, meaning must be created in each and every moment as it cannot be found via external means. Nietzsche reminds us that with the idea of eternal recurrence and amor fati everything is interlinked and related, therefore this notion epitomises existential thought in that one must embrace the freedom of the human condition in turn realising the burden of responsibility regarding one’s experience in life; I and I alone am solely responsible for the generating the meaning of my existence within the world, in essence I am master of my own fate.
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- Johnson, K. (2009) Heroes and Philosophy. (The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series). Wiley: USA
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