Read an Excerpt
Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human is a radical departure from his earlier works, both in style and in substance. It marks a transition, the beginning of what he calls his “free-spiritedness” (Freigeisterei) period. Here, for the first time, Nietzsche’s true personality shines through his words. We see the wit, the audacity, the profundity, the humor, and the depth of analysis that would become the trademarks of his subsequent writings. No longer bound by academic concerns, or by the influences of romanticism and pessimism that had so affected his earlier works, his ideas now reach a new level of originality and insight. Human, All Too Human is the expression of his liberation: the healthy and optimistic attitude of one who has recovered from a long, distressing illness.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born in the village of Röcken, in Saxony, on October 15, 1844. His father, Carl Ludwig, was a Lutheran pastor who passed away when his son was four years old, owing to “softening of the brain.” Nietzsche and his younger sister, Elisabeth, were raised by their mother, Franziska, and two maiden aunts. In 1858, Nietzsche was admitted to the Pfortaschule, the most distinguished secondary school in Germany. After six years of the regimented life there, he spent a year as a theology student at the University of Bonn. In 1865, he began the study of classical philology at the University of Leipzig. It was there that the first of the two primary influences on Nietzsche’s early views began.
On a day in October, he came across a book that would change his outlook on life and affect his literary efforts for years to come. The book was The World as Will and Representation, by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860).
I took it in my hand as something totally unfamiliar and turned the pages. I do not know which demon was whispering to me: “Take this book home.”…Back at the house I threw myself into the corner of the sofa with my new treasure, and began to let that dynamic, dismal genius work on my mind. Each line cried out with renunciation, negation, resignation. I was looking into a mirror that reflected the world, life, and my own mind with hideous magnificence. (Quoted in Hyman, p. 72)
Against the optimistic teleology of the German Enlightenment and the philosophy of Hegel, Schopenhauer argues that the fundamental insight into existence is that there is no divine or rational design or purpose in the world. The ultimate reality is the dynamic, self-determined “Will,” which is subject neither to reason nor purpose. Thus, there is no intrinsic meaning or value in the world, or in human existence. The only temporary remedies to this nihilistic pessimism are to be found in one’s affinity with others, and in music—the art form that most reflects the nonphysical, temporal, and dynamic nature of the Will.
In November 1868, the second important influence on Nietzsche’s life and views appeared through his meeting with the composer Richard Wagner (1813–83). The following year, Nietzsche was offered the post of Professor Extraordinaire at the University of Basel in Switzerland. He soon discovered that Wagner and his “wife,” Cosima von Bülow (1837–1930), were living at Tribschen, a villa near Basel. For the next few years Nietzsche was a frequent guest at Tribschen, and developed a deep friendship with the Wagners. In Richard, who was thirty-one years his elder, he found an ersatz father, a fellow follower of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, and a sympathetic friend. In Cosima, he found his ideal of grace and femininity. For Richard, Nietzsche was a friend and loyal disciple. He was also useful, in his capacity as a respected professor at Basel, as an ally in espousing Wagner’s views on art and music. Although by 1876 they had grown apart, and by 1878 had become openly antagonistic toward one another, Nietzsche always felt a fondness for the man and their days together at Tribschen. Even after years of vitriolic attacks on one another in their writings, in his autobiography, written in 1888, Nietzsche looked back fondly on the man and their relationship.
I must say a word to express my gratitude for what has been by far the most profound and cordial recreation of my life. Beyond a doubt, that was my intimate relationship with Richard Wagner. I’d let go cheap the whole rest of my human relationships; I should not want to give away out of my life at any price the days at Tribschen—days of trust, of cheerfulness, of sublime accidents, of profound moments. I do not know what experiences others have had with Wagner: our sky was never darkened by a single cloud. (Ecce Homo, II, § 5)
Under the influence of Wagner, Nietzsche began his literary career with the publication in 1872 of The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. The book’s characterization of the creative impetus behind Greek drama in terms of a synthesis of the instinctive “Dionysian” and the rational “Apollinian” impulses, and its description of the Socratic attitude of reason over instinct as one of decadence, represent seminal moments for the subsequent development of Nietzsche’s thought. However, with its hyperbolic praise of Wagner as the “new Aeschylus,” whose musical dramas represented the “music of the future,” the book did little to further Nietzsche’s budding career as a professor of classical philology. Owing to the controversy that developed around the book, the number of students who attended his lectures dropped to zero.
In 1879, Nietzsche resigned his teaching position owing to the recurring health problems that plagued him his entire life. These included severe eye pain and vision problems, intense headaches that would last for days, stomach and intestinal distress resulting in prolonged fits of vomiting, and chronic insomnia. Despite poor health and desperate loneliness, Nietzsche managed to produce a book (or a book-length supplement to an earlier publication) every year from 1878 to 1887. During 1888, in a flurry of energy and euphoria, he wrote or completed five books. In early January 1889, he collapsed in a street in Turin, Italy, confused and incoherent. He spent the last eleven years of his life institutionalized or under the care of his family: the victim of the tertiary stage of syphilis.
When Nietzsche published The Birth of Tragedy, he was thoroughly under the spell of Wagner’s powerful personality, and was still very much a card-carrying Schopenhauerian. These influences were evident in his next work, Untimely Meditations. Of these four essays, the third was titled Schopenhauer as Educator (1874), and the final one was Richard Wagner in Bayreuth (1876). Although the latter work is full of praise for “the Master,” Nietzsche was becoming increasingly aware of chinks in Wagner’s armor, and of his own dissatisfaction with the role of Wagner’s disciple.
During the glorious days of his visits to Tribschen, Nietzsche’s discussions with Wagner often centered on Schopenhauerian themes, such as the redemptive character of art (musical drama); the disastrous influences of Christianity on art and morals; and the need for creative geniuses, to whom the norms of society and morality do not apply. By 1876, Nietzsche had become disenchanted with both of his heroes. His attendance, in July and August, of the first performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle made Nietzsche physically ill. The man he had once regarded as his closest friend was now being treated and revered as a quasi-deity by the sycophants and disciples with whom he surrounded himself.
Yet the vacuum created by his loss of respect for Wagner was soon filled by a new friendship with the philosopher Paul Rée (1849–1901). Rée had been a student of Nietzsche’s at Basel and had received his doctorate in philosophy. He brought to their friendship much that would influence the transitional state of mind that Nietzsche was in during 1876. While they shared an interest in Schopenhauer, Rée was an ardent admirer of the French writers Jean de La Bruyère (1645-96) and François de La Rochefoucauld (1613–80), which he often read to the now almost blind Nietzsche. Rée also had been much affected by the writings of Charles Darwin (1809–82), which led him to see the world in objective, scientific terms, rather than in terms of the aesthetic/romantic attitude that had so far dominated Nietzsche’s writings.
In 1877, Rée and Nietzsche were invited to the home of Malwida von Meysenbug in Sorrento, Italy, for an extended holiday. Von Meysenbug, an ardent Wagnerian and long-time friend of Nietzsche’s, provided a comfortable and relaxing environment for her guests, which resulted in a great deal of discussion between Rée and Nietzsche. The fruits of this Sorrento retreat were twofold. Through his conversations with Nietzsche, Rée produced a new book, The Origin of Moral Sensations, published later that year. Through his conversations with Rée, Nietzsche’s views took a radically new turn—a turn away from both Schopenhauer and the aesthetic/romantic attitude that had developed under the influence of Wagner. He had already started working on a new book, which was envisioned as a fifth installment of his Untimely Meditations, titled The Ploughshare (Die Pfugchar). As work proceeded, he perceived that the drastic transformation of his views required a new beginning: a new book, written in a new style, expressing his radically new ideas. Thus was born Human, All Too Human.
Following the style of Rée’s books and the French authors he admired, Nietzsche’s book was written not in prose, but in a series of aphorisms. These are relatively short, more or less self-contained passages that express his ideas in a terse, tight fashion. This would become the style he would employ exclusively during his “free-spirited” period exemplified by The Dawn and The Gay Science. He resorted to it in some of his later works as well; e.g., in parts of Beyond Good and Evil, and Twilight of the Idols. Most of the book was written during his sojourn in Sorrento, and it was completed in Basel in the winter of 1877–78. By this time Nietzsche was all but blind, and dictated much of the book to his loyal friend Peter Gast.
The book was published in 1878 under the title Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits. Nietzsche had originally intended to publish it anonymously, but through the entreaties of his publisher, he allowed his name to be included. There are indications in some of Nietzsche’s letters that the book was written in haste. Since his father had died at the young age of thirty-six, Nietzsche, nearing that age himself, had convinced himself that he didn’t have much longer to live, and that he was under the gun to give expression to his important new views. Whether true or false, the fact remains that the brilliant audacity and subtle insights of the author’s mind here shine through in some of the finest, most polished aphorisms he ever wrote. In this book, for the first time, we see the terse, stylistic control and profound, heretical pronouncements that would characterize Nietzsche’s subsequent writings.
No one had ever seen a book like this one before. This is clear from the mixed and often confusing responses he received from his friends. For one thing, he dedicated the book to the French philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778). In his poetry, prose, and plays, Voltaire often declared his contempt for the optimism of the Enlightenment, and for the hypocrisy and ignorance that organized religion displays and encourages. For a German writer to dedicate a book to a Frenchman, much less to denigrate German philosophy in favor of the French writers, was seen by many German readers as a cultural and literary crime. This was particularly true for Wagner, who had nothing but disdain for all things French. Knowing this, Nietzsche nevertheless sent two copies of the book to Wagner in Bayreuth, which turned out to be a moment of extreme significance.
By a miraculously meaningful coincidence, I received at the very same time a beautiful copy of the text of Parsifal, with Wagner’s inscription for me, “for my dear friend, Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner, Church Councilor.”—This crossing of the two books—I felt as if I heard an ominous sound—as if two swords had crossed.–At any rate, both of us felt that way; for both of us remained silent….Incredible! Wagner had become pious. (Ecce Homo, III, “Human, All Too Human,” § 5)
Wagner apparently perused the book enough to be appalled by the author’s abandonment of the aesthetic/romantic attitude in favor of an objective, scientific approach to philosophical issues—the effects, Wagner insisted, of Nietzsche being under the influence of “that Jew,” Paul Rée. In a letter written in May 1878, Cosima Wagner, who had glanced through Nietzsche’s book, echoed her husband’s sentiment.
Finally Israel intervened in the form of a Dr. Rée, very sleek, very cool, at the same time as being wrapped up in Nietzsche and dominated by him, though actually outwitting him—the relationship between Judea and Germany in miniature. (Quoted in Hayman, p. 204)
Nietzsche, however, was equally appalled by Wagner’s “conversion” to Christianity, as expressed in the Christian mysticism of Parsifal: a musical drama that extols Christian morality and virtues. Nietzsche was convinced that Wagner, an avowed atheist, was now a closet Christian. Such hypocrisy was something Nietzsche could not tolerate. Thus, the bonds of this deep and abiding friendship were forever broken.
Reactions to the book among Nietzsche’s friends varied considerably. His close friend and supporter Malwida von Meysenbug sympathetically noted that, “You are not born to analysis, like Rée; you must create artistically … and thus will your genius lead you back again to the same as in The Birth of Tragedy, only with more metaphysics” (Quoted in Cate, p. 267). Nietzsche’s old friend Erwin Rohde was far less sympathetic in his evaluation of the book.
Can one in this manner rip out one’s soul and accept another in its place? Instead of Nietzsche suddenly become Rée? [sic] I still stand dumbfounded before this miracle and can neither be happy nor have a definite opinion about it; for I don’t yet properly grasp it. (Ibid., p. 267)
Other friends wrote how “shocking” and “frightful” the book was. Yet Nietzsche had expected as much. To Malwida von Meysenbug he responded that the book was the fruit of a profound metamorphosis: “The crisis of my life is at hand: if I didn’t sense the enormous fertility of my new philosophy, I’d begin to feel horribly isolated. But I am at one with myself…. (Fuss and Shapiro, June 11, 1878). To his friend Mathilde Maier, who had complained of the book’s “frightfulness” and her loss of sleep due to reading it, Nietzsche wrote the following:
It can’t be helped. I have to cause all my friends distress—precisely by speaking out at last on how I overcame my own. That metaphysical befogging of everything true and simple (reason’s struggle to turn, against reason, all things into wonders and absurdities), and a correspondingly baroque art full of overexcitement and glorified extravagance—I mean Wagner’s: it was these two things that finally made me ill…. I’m immeasurably nearer the Greeks than before. Now in every way I live striving for wisdom, whereas before I only idolized wise men…. Let everyone be his (and her) true follower. (Fuss and Shapiro, July 15, 1878)
Rohde’s criticism, one that was echoed by many of Nietzsche’s friends, was that Nietzsche had lost himself and become a counterfeit Paul Rée by abandoning his earlier idealism and romanticism and adopting a more analytical and scientific approach to philosophical issues. Nietzsche responded to Rohde’s objection in the following way.
Incidentally, in my book look for me and not for my friend Rée. I am proud to have discovered his splendid qualities and aims, but on the conception of my “Philosophia in nuce” he has not had the slightest influence: it was all ready and in good part committed to paper when I came to know him better in the autumn of 1876. We found ourselves on the same level … the advantages on both sides very great (so much so that Rée with kindly exaggeration autographed his book [On the Origin of Moral Sentiments], “To the father of this work, most gratefully from its mother!” (Quoted in Cate, p. 269)
Nietzsche’s response to Rohde is most telling. The general attitude of Nietzsche’s friends who had read his book was that he had abandoned romanticism for “Réealism.” Nietzsche, however, insists that his conversion was from sentimentalism to science. He describes a kind of epiphany experienced during his attendance of the premier of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 1876.
The beginnings of this book belong right in the midst of the first Bayreuther Festspiele; a profound alienation from everything that surrounded me is one of its preconditions. [I felt] as if I were dreaming! Wherever was I? There was nothing I recognized. I scarcely recognized Wagner. In vain did I leaf through my memories. Tribschen—a distant isle of the blessed: not a trace of any similarity…. What had happened?—Wagner had been translated into German! The Wagnerian had become master over Wagner—German art. The German master. German beer. (Ecce Homo, III, “Human, All Too Human,” § 2)
The intimate friendship that had developed during Nietzsche’s frequent visits to Tribschen in the early 1870s was grounded in their mutual admiration for Schopenhauer’s view that the values of a society were provided by “geniuses” who were not subject to the same rules that governed the society. They were the rule-makers, the unique and original individuals who gave the masses their values. Much of The Birth of Tragedy was nothing more than Nietzsche’s unabashed praise of Wagner as just such a genius; and his uninhibited exaltation of Wagner’s music as a radical transformation of the passé music of the past into the “music of the future.” Nietzsche now saw Wagner as the epitome of German Kultur, German pseudo-philosophy, and German decadence. Rather than forming and creating the artistic values of the future, Wagner had, in Nietzsche’s eyes, become a popularizer and puppet of the common, vulgar sentimentality of the Germans.
While Wagner’s fall from grace served as a catalyst for Nietzsche’s new philosophical perspectives, he had already grown dissatisfied with German philosophy and religion. He was convinced that the rational optimism and abstract metaphysics of Kant and Hegel had been done in by Schopenhauer’s philosophy of nihilistic pessimism. The time had come for another transformation, one that would take from Schopenhauer what was valuable, but would go beyond him and introduce a more positive, optimistic view of the world. In an 1888 letter to the Danish philosopher Georg Brandes, Nietzsche reflects upon this situation.
I was the first to distill a sort of unity out of the two [Schopenhauer and Wagner]. Today this is a superstition very much in the forefront of German culture: all Wagnerians are disciples of Schopenhauer…. Between Untimely Meditations and Human, All Too Human there was a crisis and a sloughing of skin. A physical crisis too: for years I lived at death’s door. This was my great good fortune—I forgot myself, I outlived myself. (Fuss and Shapiro, February 26, 1888.)
What Nietzsche “forgot” and “outlived” was his earlier commitments to traditional philosophical methodology and to his dogmatic assumptions about what philosophy was about. The “reborn” Nietzsche was now convinced that the careful, analytic procedures of science would reveal truer, more important insights than the theologically tainted procedures of metaphysics; and that traditional philosophy was basically unsuited as a means for revealing the truly important facts about the human condition.
Human, All Too Human is subtitled “A Book for Free Spirits.” In the spring of 1886, Nietzsche wrote a preface to the new edition of the book in which he explains what he means by “free spirits.”
Thus then, when I found it necessary, I invented once on a time the “free spirits”…. There are no such “free spirits” nor have there ever been such…. That such free spirits will be possible some day, that our Europe will have such bold and cheerful wights amongst her sons of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, actually and bodily, and not merely, as in my case, as the shadows of a hermit’s phantasmagoria—I should be the last to doubt thereof. Already I see them coming, slowly, slowly; and perhaps I am doing something to hasten their coming when I describe in advance under what auspices I see them originate, and upon what paths I see them come. (Human, All Too Human, Preface, § 2)
Not unlike “the philosophers of the future,” the Versucher, or “attempters” and “experimenters,“ to whom Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil is addressed, or the “Hyperboreans” for whom The Antichrist was written, the free spirit is his conception of a future inquirer who is not bound by the prejudices and preconceptions of past values and beliefs.
For those who are thus bound the great emancipation comes suddenly, like an earthquake; the young soul is all at once convulsed, unloosened and extricated—it does not itself know what is happening. An impulsion and compulsion sway and over-master it like a command: a will and a wish awaken, to go forth on their course, anywhere, at any cost; a violent, dangerous curiosity about an undiscovered world flames and flares in every sense…. A sudden fear and suspicion of that which is loved…. An intoxicated, internal, exulting thrill which betrays a triumph…. “Cannot all valuations be reversed? And is good perhaps evil? And God only an invention and artifice of the devil? Is everything, perhaps, radically false? And if we are the deceived, are we not thereby also deceivers? Must we not also be deceivers?” (Human, All Too Human, Preface, § 3. Cf. § 225)
Human, All Too Human is a call to arms against all forms of “idealism,” i.e., traditional philosophy, theology, psychology, and all the false ways human beings see themselves and the world. “With a torch whose light never wavers, an incisive light is thrown into this underworld of the ideal. This is war…. (Ecce Homo, III, “Human, All Too Human,” § 2). The book, therefore, represents the beginning of Nietzsche’s “anticrusade” against Christian morality and values, his rational attack on rational philosophy, and his “depth psychology” analysis of the psychological foundations and features of the human, all too human condition. “‘Where you see ideal things, I see what is—human, alas, all-too-human!—I know man better” (Ecce Homo, III, “Human, All Too Human,“ § 1). Nearly all the major themes and problems that will occupy Nietzsche for the rest of his career are introduced in Human, All Too Human.
Nietzsche begins by pointing out a problem that has befuddled philosophy for the past two thousand years: how can something develop from its opposite? For example, how did reason spring from the irrational? How did altruism come about from egoism? Traditional philosophy has simply sidestepped these issues by insisting that no such development occurred. The “good” characteristics, i.e., reason and altruism, originated miraculously from a divine, inaccessible source, God, who favored mankind by installing these features in our eternal and unchanging nature. But what philosophers fail to grasp is that their conception of “human nature” is a very limited notion. The human nature they concern themselves with is based on their understanding of humans living in historical times, over the past few thousand years. However, Nietzsche insists that what was essential for human existence and survival developed in prehistoric times. The idea that human nature is something static and fixed may be more or less true from our limited, historical perspective. But when seen in the larger picture of human evolution over tens of thousands of years, we can assume that the so-called eternal truths are nothing more than the latest developments of an ongoing process of change; of valuation and revaluation of what we call values and meanings.
Man of the last four thousand years is spoken of as an eternal being, toward which all things in the world have from the beginning a natural direction. But everything has evolved: there are no eternal facts, as there are likewise no absolute truths. Therefore, historical philosophizing is henceforth necessary, and with it the virtue of modesty. (Human, All Too Human, § 2)
In the following section he tells us that it is better to value “the little unpretentious truths” revealed through a strict, scientific method of analysis than to esteem the “joy-diffusing and dazzling errors which spring from metaphysical times and peoples.” In this way, people may gradually be brought to value the more viable, more real knowledge provided by the scientific method of inquiry, and may eventually lose the age-old belief “in inspiration and the miraculous communication of truths.” Such miraculously provided “truths” concerning reason, religion, and morality, which go unquestioned today, may one day be regarded in the same way that a reasonable person of today regards the “truths” of astrology.
In § 5, Nietzsche provides a fascinating (proto-Freudian) account of the origin of metaphysics, the belief in a soul and an afterlife, and the belief in gods. All such errors are said to have originated in dreams. Primitive humans were not able to clearly distinguish between the real world and the world of dreams. So, when one dreams of, say, a dead relative, this led the dreamer to assume that the person continued to exist in another world. Thus, in addition to the sensible world, there must also be a non-sensible otherworld, an alternative metaphysical reality, which was peopled by the souls of the departed, and was the realm of the demonic or benevolent beings that are revealed in our dreams. It was only much later in human development that scientific methods for achieving knowledge came to be. And since that time, there has existed an antagonism between both the methods and the motives of metaphysics and science. The basic motive behind metaphysics is to make life appear deeper and more profound, while the motive of science is concerned exclusively with a more modest end: the acquisition of knowledge (§ 6).
Everything which has hitherto made metaphysical suppositions valuable, terrible, delightful for man, what has produced them, is passion, error, and self-deception; the very worst methods of knowledge, not the best, have taught belief therein. When these methods have been discovered as the foundation of all existing religions and metaphysics, they have been refuted. Then there always remains that possibility; but there is nothing to be done with it, much less is it possible to let happiness, salvation, and life depend on the spider-thread of such a possibility. (Human, All Too Human, § 9)
While the dreams of metaphysics may provide us with strong feelings, such feelings are no indication of the truth of its claims, any more than a strong belief is a proof of what is believed. Fundamental metaphysical assumptions, such as the existence of substance and free will, are nothing more than ancient, yet persistent, misinterpretations. Metaphysics, therefore, “may be designated as the science which treats of the fundamental errors of mankind, but treats of them as if they were fundamental truths” (§ 18).
The recognition of the errors of past ways of thinking can, Nietzsche argues, provide us with insights into how humanity may be improved.
Men can consciously resolve to develop themselves towards a new culture, while formerly they only developed unconsciously and by chance, they can now create better conditions for the rise of human beings…. This new, conscious culture kills the old … it also kills distrust in progress—progress is possible. (Human, All Too Human, § 24)
Here we see one of the first hints of Nietzsche’s later, extremely important doctrine of the overman, which would become a critical theme in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Our recognition of the origin and features of past beliefs, such as the immutability of human nature, allows us to understand the human condition as one of continual change. It further allows us to consider the conditions that would improve mankind, and to recognize our responsibility to bring about those conditions. Without belief in God and in the fictions that accompany such belief, all things are possible. “The earthly rule of man must be taken in hand by man himself, his ‘omniscience’ must watch over the future fate of culture with a sharp eye” (§ 245).
Nietzsche credits Schopenhauer with the rise of the scientific attitude of his day, and with the demolition of many of the claims of Christian theology. Yet Schopenhauer was not able to free himself from the “metaphysical need” to mistake certain erroneous judgments for absolute truths. He does, nevertheless, serve as a critical transition from the ancient errors of past philosophers and theologians, to Nietzsche’s new “liberating philosophical science,” wherein art is to serve to “relieve the mind over-burdened with emotions” (§ 27); that is, as a substitute for religion or metaphysical philosophy.
In light of what has been said so far, it may not be altogether clear how Nietzsche’s new, liberating approach differs from Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Both regard the traditional claims of religion and philosophy as erroneous. Both insist that there is no objective meaning or purpose in human existence. And both agree that art may serve as a palliative to the pessimism that accompanies the recognition of the truth of nihilism. Where they part company is in Nietzsche’s contention that, while it is true that there are no absolute or unconditional values or meanings in the objective world, positive values and meanings can, indeed, be bestowed upon our experiences of the world by the “free spirits.”
If one understands how to direct one’s attention chiefly to the exceptions—I mean to the highly gifted and rich souls—if one regards the production of these as the aim of the whole world-development and rejoices in its operation, then one may believe in the value of life, because one thereby overlooks the other men…. So too, when one directs one’s attention to all mankind, but only considers one species of impulses in them, the less egoistical ones, and excuses them with regard to other instincts, one may then again entertain hopes of mankind in general, and believe so far in the value of life…. (Human, All Too Human, § 33)
This, then, is how Nietzsche overcomes Schopenhauer’s pessimism. For Schopenhauer, the recognition of the meaninglessness and purposelessness of human existence is the recognition of the ultimate and final truth of the matter. For Nietzsche, such recognition is the stepping-off point for his new, optimistic, and positive insight—that while it is true that there is no intrinsic meaning or purpose in human existence, such a truth is, like all other truths, conditional upon the value-creating human being. And the “free spirited” individual, in recognizing this, is able to take the responsibility of bestowing meaning and value upon human existence by considering what is most noble, most creative, most beneficial to humans, and instituting these values as goals for future human development. Once again, we here see the embryonic “overman.”
Nietzsche next takes his dissecting knife of scientific methodology to “The History of the Moral Sentiments.” Since, contra religion and metaphysics, human nature has been shown to be something fluid and mutable, rather than fixed and eternal, the author considers the pre-historical and historical origins of what has, in the past and in the present, passed for eternal moral values. Here we find some seminal views that would later be expanded upon in On the Genealogy of Morals (Cf. Human, All Too Human, §§ 39, 45, 60, 62, 94, 96, 101). For example, in § 39, he describes the history of moral responsibility and moral judgments such as “good” and “bad.” In ancient times, an action was judged to be good or bad purely in terms of its consequences, i.e., in terms of whether the agent succeeded or failed in some undertaking. Then there occurred a “revaluation of values,” whereby the more relative notions of “good” and “bad” are replaced with the idea that certain actions contain inherent qualities of being “good” or “evil,” regardless of their consequences. Then another shift occurred, whereby neither the consequences nor the actions themselves were subjects of moral evaluation. It was the motive of the agent that was judged to be “good” or “evil.” This was then expanded from consideration of the motives behind particular actions to the presumed source of all our moral actions, the individual’s nature. Thus, some people are naturally good while others are naturally evil.
The glaring error in this situation is that it leaves no room for moral responsibility. If a person performs an evil action, he or she does so by virtue of his or her nature, which is something inherent, not chosen. The history of moral valuation, therefore, is “the history of an error, the error of responsibility, which is based on the error of the freedom of the will.”
Therefore, it is only because man believes himself to be free, not because he is free, that he experiences remorse and pricks of conscience. Moreover, this ill humor is a habit that can be broken off: in many people it is entirely absent in connection with actions where others experience it. It is a very changeable thing, and one which is connected with the development of customs and culture, and probably only existing during a comparatively short period of the world’s history. Nobody is responsible for his actions, nobody for his nature; to judge is identical with being unjust…. The theory is as clear as sunlight, and yet everyone prefers to go back into the shadow and the untruth, for fear of the consequences. (Human, All Too Human, § 39)
According to Nietzsche, the recognition of the error of free will, of that feature which had traditionally separated humans from everything else in the world and given us our sense of nobility and moral purpose, is not easy: “The complete irresponsibility of man from his actions and his nature is the bitterest drop which he who understands must swallow” (Human, All Too Human, § 107). All human actions, like everything else that happens in the world, are parts of a closed, necessary, determined, causal process. This radical view is the first step in the development of what Nietzsche regarded as his most important insight into reality—his doctrine of the eternal recurrence of the same.
To recognize all this may be deeply painful, but consolation comes after: such pains are the pangs of birth…. In such people who are capable of such sadness—and how few are!—the first experiment made is to see whether mankind can change itself from a moral into a wise mankind. The sun of a new gospel throws its rays upon the highest point in the soul…. Everything is necessity—so says the new knowledge, and this knowledge itself is necessity. Everything is innocence, and knowledge is the road to insight into this innocence … a new habit, that of comprehension, of not loving, not hating, of overlooking, is gradually implanting itself in us … and in thousands of years will perhaps be powerful enough to give humanity the strength to produce wise, innocent (consciously innocent) men, as it now produces unwise, guilt-conscious men—that is the necessary preliminary step, not its opposite. (Human, All Too Human, § 107. Cf. § 208)
Nietzsche then launches, for the first time, his ruthless polemics against religion, and provides a psychosocial analysis of the damage the Christian Church has done to humanity. These concerns will occupy nearly all of his subsequent writings, and express the conditions for his pronouncement, in The Gay Science and in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, that God is dead.
If the idea of God is removed, so is also the feeling of “sin” as a trespass against divine laws, as a stain in a creature vowed to God. Then, perhaps, there still remains that dejection which is intergrown and connected with the fear of the punishment of worldly justice or of the scorn of men; the dejection of the prick of conscience, the sharpest thorn in the consciousness of sin, is always removed if we recognize that though by our own deed we have sinned against human descent, human laws and ordinances, still that we have not imperiled the “eternal salvation of the Soul” and its relation to the Godhead. (Human, All Too Human, § 133)
He argues that religion and science are and always will be anathema to one another. Religion was born in the early stages of human development, when people had no conception of natural causality. It was “born of fear and necessity, through the byways of reason did it slip into existence.” Everything that occurs, from the changing of the seasons to death, was seen as the result of magical influences beyond our understanding or control (§§ 110, 111). He will expand upon this insight into our misinterpretations of cause and effect in Twilight of the Idols.
Nietzsche begins his formal assault on Christianity with these words:
When on a Sunday morning we hear the old bells ring out, we ask ourselves, “Is it possible? This is done on account of a Jew crucified two thousand years ago who said he was the Son of God. The proof of such an assertion is wanting.” Certainly in our times the Christian religion is an antiquity that dates from very early ages, and the fact that its assertions are still believed, when otherwise all claims are subjected to such strict examination, is perhaps the oldest part of this heritage. A God who creates a son from a mortal woman; a sage who requires that man should no longer work, no longer judge, but should pay attention to the signs of the approaching end of the world; a justice that accepts an innocent being as a substitute in sacrifice; one who commands his disciples to drink his blood; prayers for miraculous intervention; sins committed against a God and atoned for through a God; the fear of a future to which death is the portal; the form of the cross in an age which no longer knows the signification and the shame of the cross; how terrible this appears to us, as if risen from the grave of the ancient past! Is it credible that such things are still believed? (Human, All Too Human, § 113)
Nietzsche’s problems with Christianity are basically these. First, while belief in its unjustified claims may provide solace for people with empty, monotonous lives, it has no right to demand acceptance by those whose lives are not so empty and monotonous. Second, it arose and developed by creating in human beings an unnatural dissatisfaction with nature, and then proffering the imaginary cure for the disease it instilled. Third, the vast majority of Christians are hypocrites: “it would be a sign of weak intellect and lack of character not to become a priest, apostle or hermit, and to work only with fear and trembling for one’s own salvation; it would be senseless thus to neglect eternal benefits for temporary comforts” (§ 116). Yet the vast majority of Christians do not live in this way. It would, then, be an unjust and cruel God who condemns these people to eternal damnation for their spiritual stupidity and irresponsibility.
In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche sows the seeds of many of his most important insights and doctrines: for example, the developments of metaphysics and religion through misinterpretation and errors; the nonexistence of absolute and unconditional “truths,” i.e., the foundation of his assertion that “God is dead”; the need for a new kind of philosopher, the “free spirit” of the future, who is the precursor of the “overman”; and the rejection of free will and the endorsement of causal determinism, which are necessary conditions for his later doctrine of “the eternal recurrence.” But the book also expresses many “small truths” regarding human history, sociology, and psychology. It represents a revolution in Nietzsche’s style and his ideas—a revolution that sets the stage for all of the subsequent works of this most revolutionary thinker.