KIERKEGAARD, MARX, NIETZSCHE
Throughout the nineteenth century the views of Kant, Hegel, and other German idealists had a strong impact not only on philosophy but also on religion, aesthetics, and the new field of psychology. These philosophers devised elaborate systems of thought and introduced complex philosophical vocabulary. While many philosophers embraced their views, three philosophers reacted quite critically to this trend, namely, Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), Karl Marx (1818–1883), and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Though somewhat obscure figures in their own day, they each had a profound impact on intellectual thought in the following century. Kierkegaard rejected the system-building approach of Hegel and argued instead that the quest for truth involves personal choice, grounded in religious faith. Marx rejected the idealist direction of German philosophy and the entire capitalist economic structure of his time. Instead, he argued that laws governing the material world will eventually replace capitalism with a communist social system. Nietzsche rejected both religious and rational value systems and proposed in their place a morality grounded in individual choice. These three philosophers differ from each other on critical points such as the existence of God. Nevertheless, they share the conviction that nineteenth-century European culture was terribly dysfunctional. Further, they all argued that we will come to a proper understanding of human existence and society only when we radically break from prevailing cultural attitudes.
Kierkegaard’s Life Born in Copenhagen in 1813, Sören Kierkegaard spent his short life in a brilliant literary career, producing an extraordinary number of books before his death in 1855 at the age of 42. Although his writings were soon forgotten after his death, they had an enormous impact upon their rediscovery by German scholars in the early decades of the twentieth century. At the University of Copenhagen, Kierkegaard was trained in Hegel’s philosophy but was not favorably impressed by it. When he heard Schelling’s lectures at Berlin, which were critical of Hegel, Kierkegaard agreed with this attack on Germany’s greatest speculative thinker. “If Hegel had written the whole of his Logic and then said . . . that it was merely an experiment in thought,” Kierkegaard wrote, “then he could certainly have been the greatest thinker who ever lived. As it is, he is merely comic.” What made Hegel comic for Kierkegaard was that this great philosopher tried to capture all of reality in his system of thought and, in the process, lost the most important element, namely, existence. Kierkegaard reserved the term existence for the individual human being. To exist, he said, implies being a certain kind of individual, an individual who strives, who considers alternatives, who chooses, who decides, and who, above all, makes a commitment. Virtually none of these acts were implied in Hegel’s philosophy. Kierkegaard’s whole career might well be considered a self-conscious revolt against abstract thought and an attempt on his part to live up to Feuerbach’s admonition: “Do not wish to be a philosopher in contrast to being a man . . . do not think as a thinker . . . think as a living, real being . . . think in Existence.”
To think in terms of existence meant for Kierkegaard to recognize that we face personal choices. For this reason our thinking ought to deal with our own personal situations and the crucial decisions that we invariably make. Hegel’s philosophy falsified people’s understanding of reality because it shifted attention away from the concrete individual to the concept of universals. It called upon individuals to think instead of to be —to think the Absolute Thought instead of being involved in decisions and commitments. Kierkegaard distinguished between the spectator and the actor, arguing that only the actor is involved in existence. To be sure, we can say that the spectator exists, but the term existence does not properly belong to inert or inactive things, whether these are spectators or stones. He illustrated this distinction by comparing two kinds of people in a wagon, one who holds the reins in his hand but is asleep and the other who is fully awake. In the first case the horse goes along the familiar road without any direction from the sleeping man, whereas in the other case the man is truly a driver. Surely, in one sense we can say that both men exist, but Kierkegaard insists that existence must refer to a quality in the individual, namely, his conscious participation in an act. Only the conscious driver exists, and so, too, only a person who is engaged in conscious activity of will and choice can be truly said to exist. Thus, while both the spectator and the actor exist in a sense, only the actor is involved in existence.
Kierkegaard’s criticism of rational knowledge was severe. He revolted against the rational emphasis in classic Greek thought, which, he charged, permeated subsequent philosophy and Christian theology. His specific argument was that Greek philosophy was too greatly influenced by a high regard for mathematics. Although he did not want to reject either mathematics or science in their proper uses, he did reject the assumption that the type of thought characteristic of science could be successfully employed when trying to understand human nature. Mathematics and science have no place for the human individual; their value is only for the general and universal. Likewise, Plato’s philosophy emphasized the universal, the Form, the True, the Good. Plato’s whole assumption was that if we knew the Good we would do it. Kierkegaard thought that such an approach to ethics was a falsification of people’s real predicament. Instead, Kierkegaard underscored that even when we have knowledge we are still in the predicament of having to make a decision. In the long run the grand formulations of philosophical systems are only prolonged detours that eventually come to nothing unless they lead attention back once again to the individual. Mathematics and science can undoubtedly solve some problems, as can ethics and metaphysics. But over against such universal or general problems stands life—each person’s life—which makes demands upon us. At these critical moments abstract thought does not help.
Kierkegaard saw in the biblical story of Abraham the typical human condition: After trying for many years to conceive a child, Abraham and his wife, Sarah, finally produce Isaac, the fulfillment of their life’s dreams. God, then, approaches Abraham and tells him to kill his son as a human sacrifice. What kind of knowledge can help Abraham decide whether to obey God? The most poignant moments in life are personal, when we become aware of ourselves as a subject. Rational thought obscures and even denies this subjective element since it only considers our objective characteristics—those characteristics that all people have in common. But subjectivity is what makes up each of our unique existences. For this reason objectivity cannot give the whole truth about our individual selves. That is why rational, mathematical, and scientific thought are incapable of guiding us to a genuine existence.
Truth as Subjectivity
Truth, Kierkegaard said, is subjectivity. By this strange notion he meant that there is no prefabricated truth “out there” for people who make choices. As American philosopher William James similarly said, “Truth is made” by an act of will. For Kierkegaard, what is “out there” is only “an objective uncertainty.” Whatever may have been his criticism of Plato, he did nevertheless find in Socrates’s claim to ignorance a good example of this notion of truth. Accordingly, he says that “the Socratic ignorance which Socrates held fast with the entire passion of his personal experience, was thus an expression of the principle that the eternal truth is related to the Existing individual.” This suggests that mental cultivation is not the only important or decisive thing in life. Of more consequence is the development and maturity of our personalities.
In describing the human situation, Kierkegaard distinguished between what we now are and what we ought to be. That is, there is a movement from our essence to our existence. Developing this notion, he draws on the traditional theological notion that our sins separate us from God. Our essential human nature involves a relation to God, and our existential condition is a consequence of our alienation from God. If my sinful actions drive me even further from God, then my alienation and despair are further compounded. Sensing our insecurity and finitude, we try to “do something” to overcome our finitude, and invariably what we do only aggravates our problem by adding guilt and despair to our anxiety. For example, we might try to find some meaning for our lives by losing ourselves in a crowd, whether it is a group of political affiliates or even a congregation in a church. In every case, Kierkegaard says, “a crowd in its very concept is the untruth, by reason of the fact that it renders the individual completely impenitent and irresponsible, or at least weakens his sense of responsibility by reducing it to a fraction.” Being in a crowd only dilutes ourselves and thereby undoes our nature. The real solution, for Kierkegaard, is to relate ourselves to God rather than to groups of people. Until we do this, our lives will be full of anxiety. Shifting our orientation toward God, though, is often a tricky process, which Kierkegaard describes in terms of “stages on life’s way.”
The Aesthetic Stage
Kierkegaard’s analysis of the “three stages” stands in sharp contrast to Hegel’s theory of the gradual development of a person’s self-consciousness. Hegel expounded the dialectic movement of the mind as we move from one stage of intellectual awareness to another through the process of thinking. Kierkegaard, though, describes the movement of the self from one level of existence to another through an act of choice. Hegel’s dialectic moved gradually toward a knowledge of the universal, whereas Kierkegaard’s dialectic involves the progressive actualization of the individual. And whereas Hegel overcame the antithesis by a conceptual act, Kierkegaard overcomes it by the act of personal commitment.
The first stage in this dialectic process, Kierkegaard says, is the aesthetic stage. At this level I would behave according to my impulses and emotions. Although I am not simply sensual at this stage, I am for the most part governed by my senses. For this reason I would know nothing of any universal moral standards. I have no specific religious belief. My chief motivation is a desire to enjoy the widest variety of pleasures of the senses. My life has no principle of limitation except my own taste; I resent anything that would limit my vast freedom of choice. At this stage I can exist inasmuch as I deliberately choose to be an aesthetic person. But even though I can achieve some existence at this level, it is a rather poor quality of existence. Even though I may be fully consumed by my aesthetic way of life, I am still aware that my life ought to consist of more than this. According to Kierkegaard we must distinguish between our capacity for spirituality, on the one hand, and sensuousness, on the other. Our spiritual capacity, he believed, builds on the sensuous. To be able to make this distinction about someone else is one thing. However, when we are aware of these two possibilities within ourselves, this triggers a dialectic movement within us. The antithesis of the sensual drive is the lure of the spirit. In experience this conflict produces anxiety and despair when we discover that we are in fact living in the “cellar” of sensuousness and that life at this level cannot possibly result in true existence. I am now face to face with an either-or decision: Either I remain at the aesthetic level with its fatal attractions and inherent limitations, or I move to the next stage. I cannot make this transition by thinking alone, Kierkegaard maintains, but must instead make a commitment through an act of will.
The Ethical Stage
The second level is the ethical stage. Unlike the aesthetic person, who has no universal standards but only his or her own taste, the ethical person does recognize and accept rules of conduct that reason formulates. On this level moral rules give my life the elements of form and consistency. Moreover, as an ethical person I accept the limitations that moral responsibility imposes on my life. Kierkegaard illustrates the contrast between the aesthetic person and the ethical person in their specific attitudes toward sexual behavior. Whereas the aesthetic person gives in to impulses wherever there is an attraction, the ethical person accepts the obligations of marriage as an expression of reason. If Don Juan exemplifies the aesthetic person, it is Socrates who typifies the ethical person or the reign of universal moral law.
As an ethical person I have the attitude of moral self-sufficiency. I take firm stands on moral questions, and, as Socrates argued, I assume that to know the good is to do the good. For the most part I consider moral evil to be a product either of ignorance or of weakness of will. But the time comes, Kierkegaard says, when the dialectic process begins to work in the consciousness of the ethical person. I then begin to realize that I am involved in something more profound than an inadequate knowledge of the moral law or insufficient strength of will. I am doing something more serious than merely making mistakes. I ultimately come to realize that I am in fact incapable of fulfilling the moral law, and I even deliberately violate that law. I thus become conscious of my guilt and sin. Guilt, Kierkegaard says, becomes a dialectic antithesis that places before me a new either-or. Now I must either remain at the ethical level and try to fulfill the moral law or respond to my new awareness. This specifically involves an awareness of my own finitude and estrangement from God to whom I belong and from whom I must derive my strength. Again, my movement from the ethical to the next stage can be achieved not by thinking alone but by an act of commitment—that is, by a leap of faith.
The Religious Stage
When we arrive at the third level—the religious stage —the difference between faith and reason is particularly striking. My movement from the aesthetic to the ethical level required an act of choice and commitment. It ushered me into the presence of reason insofar as the moral law is an expression of universal reason. But the movement from the ethical to the religious level is quite different. The leap of faith does not bring me into the presence of a God whom I can rationally and objectively describe as the Absolute and Knowable Truth. Instead, I am in the presence of a Subject. Accordingly, I cannot pursue God in an “objective way” or “bring God to light objectively.” This, Kierkegaard says, “is in all eternity impossible because God is subject, and therefore exists only for subjectivity in inwardness.” At the ethical level it is possible for me to give my life, as Socrates did, for the moral law that I rationally understand. But when it is a question of my relation to God, I have no rational or objective knowledge about this relationship.
The relationship between God and each individual is a unique and subjective experience. There is no way, prior to the actual relationship, to get any knowledge about it. Any attempt to get objective knowledge about it is entirely an approximation process. Only an act of faith can assure me of my personal relation to God. As I discover the inadequacy of my existence at the aesthetic and ethical levels, self-fulfillment in God becomes clear to me. Through despair and guilt I am brought to the decisive moment in life when I confront the final either-or of faith. I experience my self-alienation and thereby become aware that God exists. A paradox of faith arises when I see that God has revealed himself in a finite human being, namely, Jesus. It is in fact an extraordinary affront to human reason to say that God, the infinite, is revealed in Jesus, the finite. Kierkegaard writes that this paradox is “to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness.” Nevertheless, for Kierkegaard there is only one way to cross the span between human beings and God, which is an “infinite qualitative distinction between time and eternity.” It is not through speculative reason— not even Hegel’s. Instead, it is through faith, which is a subjective matter and a consequence of commitment, and this will always involve some risk. Kierkegaard’s philosophy can be summed up in his statement “Every human being must be assumed in essential possession of what essentially belongs to being a human.” This being the case, “the task of the subjective thinker is to transform himself into an instrument that clearly and definitely expresses in existence whatever is essentially human.” In short, each person possesses an essential self, which he or she ought to actualize. This essential self is fixed by the very fact that human beings must inescapably become related to God. To be sure, we can exist at any one of the three stages along life’s way. But the experience of despair and guilt creates in us an awareness of qualitative differences in various types of existence. We also become aware that some types of human existence are more authentic than others. But arriving at authentic existence is not an intellectual matter. Instead, it is a matter of faith and commitment and a continuous process of choice in the presence of varieties of either-or.
Marxism provided the official philosophical point of view for at least one-third of the world’s population in the second half of the twentieth century. When we consider that Marx spent a considerable portion of his adult life in relative obscurity, it is all the more remarkable that his views should have achieved such immense influence for several generations. He rarely spoke in public, and when he did, he displayed none of the attributes of the captivating orator. He was primarily a thinker, thoroughly absorbed in the task of elaborating the intricate details of a theory whose broad outlines he grasped as a young man while still in his twenties. He rarely mingled with the masses whose status occupied the center of his theoretical concern. Although he wrote an enormous amount, his writings were not read extensively during his lifetime. For example, we find no reference to Marx in the social and political writings of his famed contemporary John Stuart Mill. Nor was what Marx said entirely original. We can find much of his economic thought in Ricardo, some of his philosophical assumptions and apparatus in Hegel and Feuerbach, the view that history is shaped by the conflict between social classes in Saint-Simon, and the labor theory of value in Locke. What was original in Marx was that out of all these sources he distilled a unified scheme of thought, which he fashioned into a powerful instrument of social analysis and social revolution.
Marx’s Life and Influences
Karl Heinrich Marx was born in Trier, Germany, in 1818, the oldest son of a Jewish lawyer and the descendant of a long line of rabbis. In spite of his Jewish lineage, he was brought up as a Protestant after his father became a Lutheran, for apparently practical reasons rather than religious convictions. The elder Marx had a strong influence on his son’s intellectual development through his own rational and humanitarian inclinations. Young Marx was also influenced by Ludwig von Westphalen, a neighbor and distinguished Prussian government official and his future father-in-law. Westphalen stimulated his interest in literature and a lifelong respect for the Greek poets as well as Dante and Shakespeare. After high school in Trier, Marx went to the University of Bonn in 1835 and began the study of law at the age of 17. A year later he transferred to the University of Berlin, giving up the study of law and pursuing instead the study of philosophy. In 1841, at the age of 23, he received his doctoral degree from the University of Jena, for which he wrote a dissertation titled On the Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophies of Nature. At the University of Berlin, the dominant intellectual influence was the philosophy of Hegel, and Marx was deeply impressed by Hegel’s idealism and his dynamic view of history. He became a member of a group of young radical Hegelians who saw in Hegel’s approach to philosophy the key to a new understanding of human nature, the world, and history. Hegel centered his thought around the notion of Spirit or Mind. To him, Absolute Spirit or Mind is God. God is the whole of reality. God is identical with all of nature, and therefore, God is found also in the configurations of culture and civilization. History consists in the gradual self-realization of God in the sequence of time. What makes Nature knowable is that its essence is Mind, and what produces history is the continuous struggle of Mind to realize itself in perfect form. Thus, God and the world are one. The basic reality is, therefore, Spirit or Mind. Moreover, Hegel argued, the political dimension of reality, the Idea, is in a continuous process of unfolding from lower to higher degrees of perfection, and this is the process we know as history. History is a dialectic process moving in a triadic pattern from thesis to antithesis and finally to synthesis. Whether Marx ever accepted Hegel’s idealism in all its fullness is not certain. But what did strike him with force was Hegel’s method of identifying God and Nature or the world. Hegel said that “Spirit [God] is alone reality. It is the inner being of the world, that which essentially is and is per se.” Whatever there is, and whatever there is to know, exists as the world of nature. Besides the world and its history, there is nothing. This rejection of the older theology, which separated God and the world, is what struck Marx as being so novel and significant. Although Hegel did not intend his views to destroy the foundations of religion, a radical young group of Hegelians at the University of Berlin undertook a “higher criticism” of the Gospels. David Strauss wrote a critical Life of Jesus in which he argued that much of Jesus’s teaching was a purely mythical invention, particularly those portions that referred to another world. Bruno Bauer went even further by denying the historical existence of Jesus. Following the Hegelian method of identifying God and the world, these radical writers shattered the literal interpretation of the language of the Gospels and considered its only value to lie in its pictorial power, not in its truth. The inevitable drift of Hegelianism was to identify God with human beings, since people, among all things in Nature, embody the element of Spirit or Mind in a unique way. It was then only another step to the position of philosophical atheism, which Hegel himself did not take, but which Marx and others did.
Three components of Hegel’s philosophy had a direct impact on Marx. First is the notion that there is only one reality, and this can be discovered as the embodiment of rationality in the world. Second is the recognition that history is a process of development and change from less to more perfect forms in all of reality, including physical nature, social and political life, and human thought. Third is the assumption that the thoughts and behavior of people at any given time and place are caused by the operation in them of an identical spirit or mind, the spirit of the particular time or epoch. Although these were the general themes that Hegelianism seemed to stimulate in Marx’s thinking, other influences caused him to reject or reinterpret portions of Hegel’s philosophy. For example, shortly after Marx finished his doctoral dissertation, the appearance of Ludwig Feuerbach’s writings had a decisive effect on the young radical Hegelians, and especially on Marx.
Feuerbach took the Hegelian viewpoint to its extreme conclusion and thereby criticized the very foundation of Hegelianism itself. He did this by rejecting Hegel’s idealism, substituting the view that basic reality is material. In short, Feuerbach revived philosophical materialism, and Marx instantly felt that this explained human thought and behavior much better than did Hegel’s idealism. Hegel saw the thought and behavior of a particular epoch as the working in all people of an identical spirit. Feuerbach now contended that, on the contrary, the generating influence of people’s thoughts was the total sum of the material circumstances of any historical time.
Feuerbach thus rejected Hegel’s assumption of the primacy of Spirit and substituted for it the primacy of the material order. He developed this with particular force in the Essence of Christianity, in which he argued that human beings and not God are the basic reality. When we analyze our ideas of God, Feuerbach said, we find no ideas of God beyond our human feelings and wants. All so-called knowledge of God, he said, is only knowledge about people. God, therefore, is humanity. Our various ideas of God simply reflect types of human existence. Thus, God is the product of human thought and not the other way around. In this way Feuerbach inverted Hegel’s idealism, and the resulting materialism struck a fire within Marx and provided him with one of the most decisive and characteristic elements in his own philosophy. Marx now acknowledged that Feuerbach was the pivotal figure in philosophy. Most importantly, Feuerbach shifted the focal point of historical development from God to human beings. That is, whereas Hegel said that it was Spirit that was progressively realizing itself in history, Feuerbach said that it is really human beings who are struggling to realize themselves. People, and not God, are in some way alienated from themselves, and history has to do with our struggle to overcome self-alienation. Clearly, if this was in fact the human condition, Marx thought, the world should be changed in order to facilitate human self-realization. This is what led Marx to say that hitherto “the philosophers have only interpreted the world differently: the point is, however, to change it.” Marx thus grounded his thought in two major insights: (1) Hegel’s dialectic view of history and (2) Feuerbach’s emphasis on the primacy of the material order. Now he was ready to forge these ideas into a full-scale instrument of social analysis and, most importantly, to lay out a vigorous and practical plan of action.
At the age of 25, Marx left Berlin and went to Paris, where he and some friends undertook the publication of the radical, periodical Deutsch-Französiche Jahrbücher. In Paris, Marx met many radicals, revolutionaries, and utopian thinkers and confronted the ideas of such people as Fourier, Proudhon, Saint- Simon, and Bakunin. Of lasting significance was his meeting with Friedrich Engels, the son of a German textile manufacturer, with whom Marx was to have a long and intimate association. Apart from his progressively deeper involvement in practical social action through his journalism, Marx was greatly preoccupied in Paris with the question of why the French Revolution had failed. He wanted to know whether it was possible to discover any reliable laws of history in order to avoid mistakes in future revolutionary activity. He read extensively on this subject and discovered several promising answers. He was particularly impressed by Saint-Simon’s account of class conflict, which led Marx to focus on the classes not only as the parties to conflict but also as the bearers of the material and economic realities in which their lives are set. What Marx began to see was that revolutions do not succeed if they consist only in romantic ideas while overlooking the realities of the material order. But it was only a year after Marx arrived in Paris that he was expelled from the city, and for the next three years, from 1845 to 1848, Marx and his family settled in Brussels. Here he helped to organize a German Worker’s Union. At a meeting in London in 1847, this group united with similar European organizations and formed an international Communist League. The first secretary was Engels. The league asked Marx to formulate a statement of principles. This appeared in 1848 under the title Manifesto of the Communist Party.
From Brussels he returned to Paris briefly to participate in some revolutionary activities but was again required to leave. This time, in the autumn of 1849, he went to London, where he would spend the rest of his life. England at this time was not ripe for revolutionary activity, since there was no widespread organization of the mass of workers. Marx himself became an isolated figure, prodigiously studying and writing. Each day he went to the reading room of the British Museum, working there from nine in the morning until seven at night with additional hours of work after he returned to his bleak two-room apartment in the cheap Soho district of London. His poverty was deeply humiliating. But he was driven with such single-mindedness to produce his massive books that he could not deviate from this objective to provide his family with more adequate facilities. In addition to his poverty, he was afflicted with a liver ailment and plagued with boils. In this environment his 6-year-old son died, and his beautiful wife’s health failed. Some financial help came from Engels and from his writing regular articles on European affairs for the New York Daily Tribune. Under these incredible circumstances Marx produced many notable works, including his first systematic work on economics, which he called the Critique of Political Economy (1859). The most important of these is his massive The Capital (Das Kapital), whose first volume he published in 1867 and whose second and third volumes were assembled from his manuscripts after his death and published by Engels in 1885 and 1894. Although Marx supplied the theoretical basis for the Communist movement, he participated less and less in the practical activities that he urged. Still, he had a lively hope that the great revolution would come and that his prediction of the downfall of capitalism would become a fact. But in the last decade of his life, as his name became famous around the world, he became less productive. In 1883, two years after his wife died and only two months after his eldest daughter’s death, Karl Marx died of pleurisy in London, at the age of 65.
Marx often protested that he was not a “Marxist,” and not every idea or every strategy utilized by world communism can rightly be ascribed to him. There is, nevertheless, a central core of thought, which constitutes the essence of Marxist philosophy and which Marx formulated in the highly charged intellectual atmosphere of the mid-nineteenth-century Europe of which he was a part. This core of Marxist thought consists in the analysis of four basic elements; (1) the major epochs of history, (2) the causal power of the material order, (3) the alienation of labor, and (4) the source and role of ideas. We will look at each of these in turn.
The Epochs of History: Marx’s Dialectic
In his Communist Manifesto Marx formulated his basic theory, which he considered in many ways original. “What I did that was new,” he said, “was to prove (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historic phases in the development of production; (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; (3) that the dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.” Later, while in London, he worked out his argument in painstaking detail, which he thought provided scientific support for the more general pronouncements in his Manifesto. Accordingly, he stated in the preface to The Capital that “it is the ultimate aim of this work to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society.” This law of motion became his theory of dialectical materialism. The Five Epochs Marx showed that class struggle is bound up with “particular historic phases.” He distinguished five such phases or epochs: (1) primitive communal, (2) slave, (3) feudal, (4) capitalist, and, as a prediction of things to come, (5) socialist and communist. For the most part this was a conventional division of Western social history into its major periods. But what Marx wanted to do was to discover the “law of motion.” These would explain not only that history produced these various epochs but the reasons why these particular epochs unfolded as they did. If he could discover history’s law of motion, he could not only explain the past but predict the future. He assumed that the behavior of individuals and societies is subject to the same kind of analysis as are the objects of physical and biological science. He considered the commodity and value products of economics as being “of the same order as those [minute elements] dealt with in microscopic anatomy.” When analyzing the structure of each historical epoch, he viewed these as the result of conflict between social classes. In time this conflict itself would have to be analyzed in more detail. Now he looked upon history as the product of conflict and relied heavily upon the Hegelian concept of dialectic to explain it.
Of course, Marx rejected Hegel’s idealism, but he accepted the general theory of the dialectic movement of history, which Hegel proposed. Hegel argued that ideas develop in a dialectic way, through the action and reaction of thought. He described this dialectic process as a movement from thesis to antithesis and then to synthesis, where the synthesis becomes a new thesis, and the process goes on and on. In addition, Hegel said that the external social, political, and economic world is simply the embodiment of people’s (and God’s) ideas. The development or the movement of the external world is the result of the prior development of ideas. Marx, again, considered Hegel’s notion of dialectic a crucial tool for understanding history. But, through the powerful influence of Feuerbach, Marx supplied a materialistic basis for the dialectic. Accordingly, Marx said that “my dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the process of thinking . . . is the [creator] of the real world.” However, to Marx, “the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.” According to Marx, we are to see history as a movement caused by conflicts in the material order, and for this reason history is a dialectical materialism. Change: Quantitative and Qualitative History shows that social and economic orders are in an ongoing process of change. Marx’s dialectical materialism maintains further that material order is primary, since matter is the basis of what is truly real. He rejected the notion that somewhere there are stable, permanent structures of reality or certain “eternal verities.” Instead, everything is involved in the dialectic process of change. Nature, he argued, “from the smallest thing to the biggest, from a grain of sand to the sun . . . to man, is in . . . a ceaseless state of movement and change.” History is the process of change from one epoch to another in accordance with the rigorous and inexorable laws of historical motion.
For Marx change is not the same thing as mere growth. A society does not simply mature the way a child becomes an adult. Nor does nature simply move in an eternally uniform and constantly repeated circle. It passes through a real history. Change means the emergence of new structures and novel forms. What causes change is simply alteration in the quantity of things, which leads to something qualitatively new. For example, as I increase the temperature of water, it not only becomes warmer but finally reaches the point at which this quantitative change changes it from a liquid into a vapor. Reversing the process, by gradually decreasing the temperature of water, I finally change it from a liquid to solid ice. Similarly, I can make a large pane of glass vibrate, the range of the vibrations increasing as the quantity of force applied to it is increased. But finally, a further addition of force will no longer add to the quantity of vibration but will, instead, cause a qualitative change—the shattering of the glass. Marx thought that history displays this kind of change, by which certain quantitative elements in the economic order finally force a qualitative change in the arrangements of society. This is the process that moved history from the primitive communal to the slave and in turn to the feudal and capitalist epochs. Marx’s prediction that the capitalist order would fall was based on this notion that the changes in the quantitative factors in capitalism would inevitably destroy capitalism. He describes the development of these epochs with the low-key style of someone describing how water will turn into steam as heat is increased. He writes in The Capital that “while there is a progressive diminution in the number of capitalist owners, there is of course a corresponding increase in the mass of poverty, enslavement, degeneration and exploitation, but at the same time a steady intensification of the role of the working class.” Then “the centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labor reach a point where they prove incompatible with their capitalist husk. This bursts asunder. The knell of private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” This, on the social level, is what Marx describes as the quantitative leap, which is “the leap to a new aggregate state . . . where consequently quantity is transformed into quality.”
Determinism or Inexorable Law There is a basic difference between the transformation of water into steam in a laboratory experiment and the movement of society from capitalism to socialism. The difference is that I can choose to raise or not to raise the temperature of the water. But there are no such hypothetical qualifications surrounding history. Though I can say, “if the temperature is raised,” I cannot say, “ if the social order is thus and so.” Marxism holds that there is a fundamental “contradiction within the very essence of things” causing the dialectic movement. Although there are ways to delay or accelerate this inner movement in the nature of things, there is no way to prevent its ultimate unfolding. All things are related to each other causally; nothing floats freely. For this reason there are no isolated events either in physical nature or in human behavior or, therefore, in history. That there is a definite and inexorable process of movement and change at work producing “history” is, for Marx, as certain as the plain fact that nature exists.
There is an important distinction that we should make when claiming, as Marx does, that all things behave in accordance with a principle of regularity and predictability. The laws of physics, for example, describe “mechanical determinism.” History, on the other hand, displays a law of determinism but not in a strictly mechanical way. The movement of one billiard ball by another is the typical example of mechanical determinism. If we can locate an object in space and measure its distance from another object whose velocity can also be measured, it would then be possible to predict the time of the impact and the subsequent trajectories and rates of motion. This mechanical determinism is hardly applicable to such a complex phenomenon as a social order, which does not have the same kind of location in space and time. But society is nevertheless the result of necessary causation and determinism, and its new forms are capable of prediction just as submicroscopic particles are determined in quantum mechanics, even though there is only “probable” prediction regarding particular particles. Thus, although the specific history of a particular person cannot be predicted with any high degree of accuracy, we can plot the future state of a social order. From his analysis of the various epochs of history, Marx thought he had discovered the built-in law of change in nature—a kind of inexorable inner logic in events—causing history to move from one epoch to the next with a relentless determinism. From this basis he predicted that capitalism would inevitably be transformed by the wave of the future, giving way to the qualitatively different social order of socialism and communism.
The End of History
For Marx history will end with the emergence of socialism and, finally, communism. Here again, he followed Hegel’s theory in an inverted way. For Hegel the dialectic process would come to an end when the idea of freedom was perfectly realized. By definition this would mean the end of all conflict and struggle. Marx, though, believed that the dialectic struggle of opposites was in the material order, particularly in the struggle between the classes. When the inner contradictions between the classes were resolved, the principal cause of movement and change would disappear. A classless society would then emerge where all the forces and interests would be in perfect balance, and this equilibrium would be perpetual. For this reason there could be no further development in history, inasmuch as there will no longer be any conflict to impel history on to any future epoch. Marx’s theory of the dialectic development of the five epochs of history rests on a close relation between the order of material reality, on the one hand, and the order of human thought, on the other. Marx was convinced that the only way to achieve a realistic understanding of history, and therefore to avoid errors in the practical plan of revolutionary activity, was to assess properly the roles of the material order and the order of human thought. Accordingly, he made a sharp distinction between the substructure and the superstructure of society. The substructure is the material order, containing the energizing force that moves history, whereas the superstructure consists in people’s ideas and simply reflects the configurations of the material order.
The Substructure: The Material Order
According to Marx, the material world consists of the sum total of the natural environment, and this included for him all of inorganic nature, the organic world, social life, and human consciousness. Unlike Democritus, who defined matter in terms of irreducible tiny atoms, Marx defines matter as “objective reality existing outside the human mind.” Again, unlike Democritus, who considered atoms to be the “bricks of the universe,” Marxist materialism does not take this approach of trying to discover a single form of matter in all things. The chief characteristic of Marxist materialism is that it recognizes a wide diversity in the material world without reducing it to any one form of matter. The material order contains everything in the natural world that exists outside of our minds. The notion that any spiritual reality—God, for example—exists outside our minds and as something other than nature is denied. That human beings possess minds means only that organic matter has developed to the point where the cerebral cortex has become the organ capable of the intricate process of reflex action called human thought. Moreover, the human mind has been conditioned by the labor activity of humans as social beings. For this reason, relying on the Darwinian notion of human evolution, Marxism affirms the primacy of the material order and regards mental activity as a secondary by-product of matter. The earliest forms of life were without mental activity until human ancestors developed the use of their forelimbs, learned to walk erect, and began to use natural objects as tools to procure food and to protect themselves. The big transformation from animal to human being came with the ability to fashion and use tools and to control forces such as fire. This in turn made possible a wider variety of food and the further development of the brain. Even now, the complex material order is the basic reality, whereas the mental realm is a derivative. In particular, the material order consists of (1) the factors of production and (2) the relations of production. The Factors of Production The basic fact of human life is that in order to live people must secure food, clothing, and shelter. To have these material things, people must produce them. Wherever we find any society of people, there is always at hand the factors of production—the raw materials, instruments, and the experienced labor skill—by which to sustain life. But these factors or forces of production represent chiefly the way people are related to these material things. Of greater importance is the way we are related to each other in the process of production. Marx emphasized that production always takes place as a social act, whereby people struggle against and utilize nature not as individuals but as groups and societies. For Marx, then, the static analysis of what goes into production was not as important as the dynamic relations of people to each other as a producing society. To be sure, Marx felt that the factors of production affected the relations of production. For example, the scarcity of raw materials could have a considerable effect on the way people related to each other in the process of production. In any case, Marx centered his analysis of the material order on the way that people engaged in the act of production—on the relations of production. The Relations of Production Marx believed that his explanation of the relations of production is the core of his social analysis. It was here that he thought he located the energizing force of the dialectic process. The key to the relations of production is the status of property or its ownership. That is, what determines how people are related to each other in the process of production is their relation to property. Under the slave system, for example, slave owners owned the means of production, even owning the slaves, whom they could purchase or sell. The institution of slavery was a necessary product of the dialectic process, since it arose at a time when advanced forms of tools made possible more stable and sustained agricultural activity and a division of labor. But in the slave epoch, as well as in the subsequent historical epochs, laborers are “exploited” in that they share in neither the ownership nor in the fruits of production. The basic struggle between the classes is seen already in the slave system. For the ownership of property divides society between those who have and those who do not. In the feudal system the feudal lord owns the means of production. The serfs rise above the level of the former slaves and have some share in the ownership of tools, but they still work for the feudal lord and, Marx says, feel exploited and struggle against their exploiter. In capitalism the workers are free as compared with the slaves and the serfs, but they do not own the means of production, and in order to survive, they must sell their labor to the capitalist.
The shift from slave to feudal to capitalist relations of production is not the result of rational design but is a product of the inner movement and logic of the material order. Specifically, the impelling force to survive leads to the creation of tools, and in turn, the kinds of tools created affect the way people relate to each other. Thus, whereas certain tools, such as the bow and arrow, permit independent existence, the plough logically implies a division of labor. Similarly, whereas a spinning wheel can be used in the home or in small shops, heavier machinery requires large factories and a new concentration of workers in a given locality. The process moves in a deterministic way, impelled by basic economic drives whose direction is set by the technological requirements of the moment. The thoughts and behavior of all people are determined by their relations to each other and to the means of production. Although in all periods there is a conflict and struggle between the different classes, the class struggle is particularly violent under capitalism. There are at least three characteristics of class struggle under capitalism. First, the classes are reduced basically to two—the owners (bourgeoisie) and the workers (proletariat). Second, the relations of those classes to each other rest on a fundamental contradiction, namely, that although both classes participate in the act of production, the type of distribution of the fruits of production does not correspond to the contribution made by each class. The reason for this discrepancy is that the forces of supply and demand determine the price of labor in the capitalist system, and the large supply of workers tends to push wages down to a subsistence level. But the products created by labor can be sold for more than it costs to hire the labor force. Marx’s analysis assumed the labor theory of value, namely, that the value of the product is created by the amount of labor put into it. From this point of view, since the product of labor could be sold for more than the cost of labor, the capitalist would then reap the difference, which Marx called surplus value. The existence of surplus value constituted a contradiction in the capitalistic system for Marx. For this reason, Marx argued that in the capitalistic system exploitation was not merely an isolated occurrence here or there, now or then. Instead, it existed always and everywhere because of the manner in which the iron law of wages operates. Still, Marx made no moral judgment of this condition, saying that as a matter of fact workers received what they were worth if the determination of the wage through the supply and demand of labor is the norm. “It is true,” he said, “that the daily maintenance of labor power costs only half a day’s labor, and that nevertheless the labor power can work for an entire working day, with the result that the value which its use creates during a working day is twice the value of a day’s labor power. So much the better for the purchaser, but it is nowise an injustice to the seller [worker].”
In a sense Marx did not “blame” the capitalist for this arrangement. These are rather the consequences of the material forces of history. Labor became a coherent group only because large-scale machinery required large factories, and suddenly the multitude of workers who were required to run the machines found themselves living close together. That history produced the capitalist system was one thing, but that it rested on a contradiction was something else. For this reason Marx excused the capitalist. However, for scientific reasons he compelled to say that the class conflict caused by this contradiction of surplus value would force the dialectic movement to the next stage of history, namely, socialism and finally communism.
The third characteristic of this class struggle was the prediction that the condition of workers in capitalism would become progressively more wretched. The poor would become poorer and more numerous while the rich would become richer and fewer, until the masses would take over all the means of production. As long as the means of production remained in the hands of a few, the class struggle would continue inexorably until the contradiction was resolved, ending the dialectic movement. Meanwhile, the workers’ lives would be terribly dehumanized by what Marx calls “the alienation of labor.”
The Alienation of Labor
While still in his twenties, Marx produced a brief series of manuscripts called the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, first published in 1932. The key concept of these manuscripts is that of alienation, a theme that informs the whole system of Marx’s thought. Although Marx was by no means the first to develop a theory of alienation, his views were unique because they were based on his particular economic and philosophical assumptions, which formed the basis of his criticism of capitalism.
If people are alienated—that is, estranged or separated—they must be alienated from something. In Christian theology people are alienated from God through sin and the fall of Adam. In a legal sense alienation means selling or giving something away, or as Kant says, “the transference of one’s property to someone else is its alienation.” In the course of time almost everything became a sellable object. Balzac said ironically that “even the Holy Spirit has its quotation on the Stock Exchange.” For Marx there is something crucial within our human nature from which we can be alienated, namely, our work. Marx describes four aspects of alienation. We are alienated (1) from nature, (2) from ourselves, (3) from our species-being, and (4) from other people. He begins with the fundamental relation between workers and the product of their labor. Originally, our relation to the product of our labor was quite intimate. We took things from the material world, shaped them, and made them our own. Capitalism, though, breaks this relationship by forcing us to forfeit the products of our labor in exchange for money. In the productive process our labor becomes as much an object as the physical material that is worked upon, since labor is now bought and sold. The more objects we produce, the fewer we can personally possess and therefore the greater is our loss. To the extent that we are embodied in my labor, we become alienated from the natural world in which we work. “The worker,” says Marx, “puts his life into the object, and his life then belongs no longer to himself but to the object.” The object is appropriated and owned by someone else. In this way the original relation between people and nature is destroyed.
We next become alienated from ourselves by participating in capitalist labor. This comes about because work is external to us and not part of our nature. Work is not voluntary but is imposed upon us. We have a feeling of misery instead of well-being. Rather than fulfilling ourselves, we must deny ourselves. We do not freely develop our physical and mental capacities but are instead physically exhausted and mentally debased. As a consequence, we feel like human beings only during our leisure hours. Most important of all, we are alienated from our work because it is not our own work but rather work for someone else. In this sense, as workers, we do not belong to themselves but to someone else, and we have more or less become prostitutes. The result is that a worker “feels himself to be freely active only in his animal functions— eating, drinking and procreating—or at most also in his dwelling and personal adornment—while in his human functions he is reduced to an animal.” Although eating, drinking and procreating are genuine human functions, even these become animal functions when separated from our other human functions.
At still another level, we are alienated from our species -being—that is, from our truly human nature. The character of any species resides in the type of activity it expresses. The species-character of human beings is “free, conscious activity.” By contrast, an animal cannot distinguish itself from its activity; the animal is its activity. But, Marx says, a person “makes his life activity itself an object of his will and consciousness.” It is true that animals can produce nests and dwellings, as in the case of bees, ants, and beavers. But their production of these things is limited to what is strictly required for themselves or their young. We, on the other hand, produce universally—that is, in a manner that is applicable and understandable to all human beings. Also, whereas animals produce only under the compulsion of specific physical need, we produce our most distinctive products only when we are free from physical need. Animals reproduce only themselves, whereas we can produce a whole world, a world of art, science, and literature. Animals are limited in their activity to the standards of the species to which they belong. We, on the other hand, know how to produce in accordance with the standards of every species. For these reasons the whole object of our labor is to impose on the world of nature our species-life—our free, spontaneous, and creative activity. In this way we reproduce ourselves in the things we create, not only intellectually in the realm of ideas but also actively, seeing our own reflection in the physical world that we have created. This unique character of human species-life is lost when our labor is alienated. Just as we are removed from the object of our labor, so also are we stripped of our free and spontaneous activity and creativity. Our consciousness is now deflected from creativity and is focused to simply on the means to our individual existence.
This leads to our alienation from other people. The breakdown in our relations to other people is similar to our alienation from the objects of our labor. In an environment of alienated labor, we look upon other people from the point of view of workers. We see other workers as objects whose labor is bought and sold, and not as full members of the human species. To say, then, that our species-being species nature is alienated or estranged from ourselves means that we are estranged from other people.
Marx asks, “If the product of labor is alien to me . . . to whom does it belong?” In an earlier age, when temples were built in Egypt and India, people thought that the product belonged to the gods. But, Marx says, the alienated product of labor can belong only to some human being. If it does not belong to the worker, it must belong to a person other than the worker. Thus, as a result of alienated labor, workers produce a new relationship between themselves and another person, and this other person is the capitalist. The final product of alienated labor is private property. Private property, in the form of capitalist business, is both a product of alienated labor and the means by which labor is alienated. In the wage system entailed by private property, labor finds itself not as an end but as the servant of wages. Nor would a forced increase in wages restore to either the workers or to their work their human significance or value. As a statement of eventual liberation, Marx concludes that the freeing of society from private property involves the emancipation of the workers, which in turn will lead to the emancipation of humanity as a whole.
Marx was convinced that the dialectic process inevitably involves tragic conflicts. He saw in history the deep tension between forces that are incompatible, each exerting its power to overcome the other. The use of revolutionary force could hardly be avoided, but force could not bring into being simply any desired utopian system. Only the relations of production toward which the inner logic of the material order was driving in a determined way could be the objective of revolution. Even when a society is aware of its ultimate direction, this society “can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development.” What, then, is the function of the revolutionary activities of the working classes? It is, Marx says, to “shorten and lessen the birth-pangs.”
With this rigorous view of the nature of the class struggle, Marx clearly assigned to the material substructure the supreme significance in the dialectic process of history. What, then, is the status and role of human thought? Do ideas have power and consequences? For Marx ideas represent a mere reflection of the basic material reality, and so he described the enterprise of human thought as the superstructure.
The Superstructure: The Origin and Role of Ideas
Each epoch, said Marx, has its dominant ideas. People formulate ideas in the areas of religion, morality, and law. Hegel argued that people agree for the most part in their religious, moral, and legal thought because there is at work in them a universal Spirit, the Idea. Marx, on the contrary, said that the ideas of each epoch grow out of and reflect the actual material conditions of the historical period. For this reason thinking comes after the material order has affected people’s minds. In Marx’s words, “it is not the consciousness of people that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” The source of ideas is rooted in the material order. Ideas such as justice and goodness and even religious salvation are only various ways of rationalizing the existing order. Justice, for the most part, represents the will of the economically dominant class and its desire to “freeze” the relations of production as they are. Marx was impressed during his early years as a law student with the teachings of the jurist Savigny, who defined law as the “spirit” of each epoch. Savigny argued that law is like language and, therefore, is different for each society. Like Savigny, Marx rejected the notion of a universal and eternal norm of justice. In fact, he argued that if ideas simply reflect the inner order of the relations of production, each successive epoch will have its own set of ideas and its own dominant philosophy. The conflict of ideas within a society at a given time is due to the dynamic nature of the economic order. The dialectic process, which is a struggle of opposites, has its material aspect but also its ideological side. Since members of a society are related to the dialectic process by belonging to different classes, their interests are different and, therefore, their ideas are opposed. Moreover, the greatest error, according to Marx, is to fail to realize that ideas that accurately reflected the material order at an earlier time no longer do so because, in the meantime, the substructure of reality has moved on. Those who hold onto old ideas wrongly believe that some reality still remains that corresponds to the old ideas. Their desire, then, to reverse the order of things to fit these ideas makes them “reactionaries.” On the other hand, astute observers can discover the direction in which history is moving and adjust their thinking and behavior to it. The fact is, Marx says, that the dialectic process involves the disappearance of some things and the birth of others. That is why one epoch dies and another is born, and there is no way to stop the process. Those who assume the objective reality of eternal principles of justice, goodness, and righteousness do not realize that such notions cannot refer to reality since the material order, which is the only reality, is constantly changing. “The sum total of the productive relations,” Marx says, “constitutes the economic structure of society—the real foundation on which rise legal and political superstructure . . . [and which] determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life.” Because he believed that ideas are chiefly a reflection of the material order, Marx attributed a limited role or function to them. Ideas are particularly useless when they bear no relationship to economic reality. Marx’s impatience with reformers, do-gooders, and utopians was intense. He argued that ideas cannot determine the direction of history but can only hinder or accelerate the inexorable dialectic. For this reason Marx thought that his own ideas about capitalism did not constitute a moral condemnation. He did not say that capitalism was either wicked or due to human folly. It was simply caused by the “law of motion of society.” In the end Marx assumed that he was proceeding in his analysis as a scientist, limiting his thought to objective reality, and abstracting from it the laws of motion.
Nietzsche died on August 25, 1900, at the age of 55, leaving a legacy of brilliant writings whose impact and influence were delayed until the twentieth century. His life was full of sharp contrasts. The son and grandson of Lutheran ministers, he was nevertheless the herald of the judgment that “God is dead” and undertook a “campaign against morality.” He was raised in an environment thoroughly dominated by females, yet his philosophy of the Superperson is anything but nurturing. He called for the fullest expression of human vitality in the name of the Will to Power, yet he believed that sublimation and control are the truly human characteristics. While his writings are lucid, he ended his days in hopeless insanity.
Named after the reigning king of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born in Röcken, in the province of Saxony, on October 15, 1844. His father died when he was 4 years old, and he grew up in a household consisting of his mother, sister, grandmother, and two maiden aunts. At age 14 he was sent to the famed boarding school at Pforta, where for six years he underwent a rigorous education, excelling particularly in the classics, religion, and German literature. It was here that he came under the spell of ancient Greek thought, discovering it especially in Aeschylus and Plato. In October 1864 he went to the University of Bonn but, unimpressed by the caliber of his fellow students, he stayed only one year. He decided to follow his excellent teacher of classics and philology, Friedrich Ritschl, who accepted a chair at the University of Leipzig. While at Leipzig he came upon the main work of Schopenhauer, whose atheism and antirationalism deeply influenced Nietzsche for a while and confirmed his own rebellion against contemporary European culture, which he came to despise as decadent. It was here also that Nietzsche came under the spell of Richard Wagner’s music. “I could not have stood my youth without Wagner’s music,” Nietzsche said later. “When one wants to rid oneself of an intolerable pressure, one needs hashish. Well, I needed Wagner.”
When the University of Basel was looking for someone to fill the chair of philosophy, Nietzsche’s name figured prominently. He had not yet completed his doctoral degree, but some of his published papers attracted notice for their exceptional scholarship. On the additional strength of his teacher’s enthusiastic recommendation, Nietzsche was appointed a university professor at the age of 24. After the University of Basel confirmed his appointment, the University of Leipzig conferred the doctoral degree on Nietzsche without examination. In May 1869 he delivered his inaugural lecture on “Homer and Classical Philology.” During his years at Basel, Nietzsche visited Wagner frequently at his villa on Lake Lucerne. While this friendship was not destined to last, Wagner did exert an influence on Nietzsche’s thought in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872). Of longer duration was Nietzsche’s friendship with his older colleague, the eminent historian Jacob Burckhardt, with whom he shared a fascination for ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy. Nietzsche’s wretched health and his dislike of his duties at the university led him to resign his professorship in 1879 at the age of 34. For the next decade he wandered through Italy, Switzerland, and Germany searching for some place where his health might be restored. In spite of his poor health, he wrote several books during the six-year period from 1881 to 1887, including The Dawn of Day, Joyful Wisdom, the famous Thus Spake Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, and A Genealogy of Morals. In 1888, when he was 44, Nietzsche enjoyed a brief respite from his prolonged cycle of sickness and recovery. During a span of six months, he produced five books: The Case of Wagner, The Twilight of the Idols, Antichrist, Ecce Homo, and Nietzsche contra Wagner. Shortly thereafter, in January 1889, Nietzsche collapsed on a street in Turin. He was taken back to Basel to a clinic. From there he was sent to an asylum in Jena and finally to the care of his mother and sister. For the last eleven years of his life, Nietzsche was irretrievably insane as a result of an infection that affected his brain. He was thus unable to complete his projected major work, the Revaluation of All Values. Nietzsche’s books have great vivacity of style and are written with a passionate intensity. Even though some of his later works show signs of impending difficulties, scholars generally agree that we should not discount his writings because of his subsequent mental collapse.
“God Is Dead”
Nietzsche wrote philosophy in a manner calculated more to provoke serious thought than to give formal answers to questions. In this regard he resembled Socrates and Plato more than Spinoza, Kant, or Hegel. He produced no formal system because system building, he thought, assumes that we have at hand self-evident truths on which to build. He also believed that building systems lacks integrity, since honest thought must challenge precisely these self-evident truths on which most systems are built. We must engage in dialectic and be willing at times to declare ourselves against our previous opinions. Moreover, most philosophic system builders, he thought, try to solve all problems at once by acting as the “unriddler of the universe.” Nietzsche believed that philosophers must be less pretentious and pay more attention to questions of human values than to abstract systems. Philosophers should also focus on immediate human problems with an attitude of fresh experimentation and a freedom from the dominant values of their culture. Nietzsche took a variety of positions on important problems, and because of this it is easy to interpret his views in contradictory ways. Moreover, he expressed his views on issues with brief aphorisms instead of detailed analyses, leaving the impression of ambiguity and ambivalence. Still, Nietzsche formulated many distinctive views, which emerge from his writings with considerable clarity.
While others saw in nineteenth-century Europe the symbols of power and security, Nietzsche grasped with prophetic insight the imminent collapse of the traditional supports of the values to which modern people committed themselves. The Prussian army made Germany a great power on the Continent, and the astonishing advances in science further animated the feeling of optimism. Nevertheless, Nietzsche boldly prophesied that power politics and bloody wars were in store for the future. He sensed an approaching period of nihilism, the seeds of which had already been sown. He did not base this either on the military power of Germany or on the unfolding advances of science. Instead, he was influenced by the incontrovertible fact that belief in the Christian God had drastically declined to the point where he could confidently say that “God is dead.”
Although Nietzsche was an atheist, he reflected on the “death” of God with mixed reactions. He was appalled at the consequences that would follow once everyone became fully aware of all the implications of the death of God. He thought about both the collapse of religious faith and the mounting belief in the Darwinian notion of a relentless evolution of the species. He could see in this combination the destruction of any basic distinction between human and animal. If this is what we are asked to believe he said, then we should not be surprised when the future brings us colossal wars such as we have never seen before on earth. At the same time, the death of God meant for Nietzsche the dawn of a new day—a day when the essentially life-denying ethics of Christianity could be replaced with a life-affirming philosophy. “At last,” he said, “the sea, our sea, lies open before us. Perhaps there has never been so open a sea.” His ambivalent reaction to the nihilistic consequences of the death of God turned Nietzsche to the central question of human values. In his search for a new foundation for values in a day when God could no longer be the goal and sanction of human conduct, Nietzsche believed that aesthetics was the most promising alternative to religion. Only as an aesthetic phenomenon, he said, are human existence and the world eternally justified. The Greeks, he believed, originally discovered the true meaning of human effort. He initially drew his fundamental insights about human nature from the Greek conceptions of Apollo and Dionysus.
The Apollonian versus Dionysian
Nietzsche believed that aesthetic value results from a fusion between two principles, which are respectively represented by the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus. Dionysus symbolized the dynamic stream of life, which knows no restraints or barriers and defies all limitations. Worshipers of Dionysus would lapse into a drunken frenzy and thereby lose their own identity in the larger ocean of life. Apollo, on the other hand, was the symbol of order, restraint, and form. If the Dionysian attitude was best expressed in the feeling of abandonment in some types of music, then the Apollonian form-giving force found its highest expression in Greek sculpture. Thus, Dionysus symbolized humanity’s unity with life whereby individuality is absorbed in the larger reality of the life force. Apollo, then, was the symbol of the “principle of individuation”—the power that controls and restrains the dynamic processes of life in order to create a formed work of art or a controlled personal character. From another point of view, the Dionysian represented the negative and destructive dark powers of the soul, which, when unchecked, culminate in “that disgusting mixture of voluptuousness and cruelty” typical of “the most savage beasts of nature.” The Apollonian, by contrast, represented the power to deal with the powerful surge of vital energy, to harness destructive powers, and to transmute these into a creative act. Greek tragedy, according to Nietzsche, is a great work of art. It represents the conquest of Dionysus by Apollo. But from this account Nietzsche drew the conclusion that people are not faced with a choice between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. To assume that we even have such a choice is to misunderstand the true nature of the human condition. The fact is that human life inevitably includes the dark and surging forces of passion. What Greek tragedy illustrates, according to Nietzsche, is that instead of abandoning oneself to the flood of impulse, instinct, and passion, the awareness of these driving forces becomes the occasion for producing a work of art. This would be so whether in our own character through moderation or in literature or the arts through the imposition of form upon a resisting material. Nietzsche saw the birth of tragedy—that is, the creation of art—as a response of the basically healthy element in a person, the Apollonian, to the challenge of the diseased frenzy of the Dionysian. On this view art could not occur without the stimulus of the Dionysian. At the same time, if the Dionysian were considered either the only element in human nature or the dominant element, we might very well despair and come finally to a negative attitude toward life. But for Nietzsche the supreme achievement of human nature occurred in Greek culture where the Dionysian and Apollonian elements were brought together. Nineteenth-century culture denied that the Dionysian element had a rightful place in life. For Nietzsche, though, this only postponed the inevitable explosion of vital forces, which cannot be permanently denied expression. To ask whether life should dominate knowledge or knowledge dominate life is to raise the question concerning which of these two is the higher and more decisive power. There is no doubt, Nietzsche argued, that life is the higher and dominating power, but raw vital power is finally life-defeating. For this reason Nietzsche looked to the Greek formula—the fusion of the Dionysian and Apollonian elements—by which human life is transformed into an aesthetic phenomenon. Such a formula, Nietzsche thought, could provide modern culture with a relevant and workable standard of behavior at a time when religious faith was unable to provide a compelling vision of human destiny. What disqualified religious faith, he believed, was the essentially life-denying negativity of Christian ethics.
Master Morality versus Slave Morality
Nietzsche rejected the notion that there is a universal and absolute system of morality that everyone must equally obey. People are different, and to conceive of morality in universal terms is to disregard basic differences between individuals. It is unrealistic to assume that there is only one kind of human nature, whose direction can be prescribed by one set of rules. Whenever we propose a universal moral rule, we invariably seek to deny the fullest expression of our elemental vital energies. In this respect Judaism and Christianity are the worst offenders. Judeo-Christian ethics, he argues, is so contrary to our basic nature that its anti-natural morality debilitates humanity and produces only “botched and bungled” lives.
How did human beings ever produce such unnatural systems of ethics? There is, Nietzsche says, a “twofold early history of good and evil,” which shows the development of two primary types of morality: the master morality and the slave morality. In the master morality “good” always meant “noble” in the sense of “with a soul of high calibre.” “Evil,” by contrast, meant “vulgar” or “plebeian.” Noble people regard themselves as the creators and determiners of values. They do not look outside of themselves for any approval of their acts. They pass judgment upon themselves. Their morality is one of self-glorification. These noble individuals act out of a feeling of power, which seeks to overflow. It is not out of pity that they help the unfortunate, but rather from an impulse generated by an abundance of power. They honor power in all its forms and take pleasure in subjecting themselves to rigor and toughness. They also have reverence for all that is severe and hard. By contrast, the slave morality originates with the lowest elements of society: the abused, the oppressed, the slaves, and those who are uncertain of themselves. For the slave, “good” is the symbol for all those qualities that serve to alleviate the existence of sufferers, such as “sympathy, the kind helping hand, the warm heart, patience, diligence, humility and friendliness.” This slave morality Nietzsche argues, is essentially the morality of utility, since moral goodness involves whatever is beneficial to those who are weak and powerless. With the slave morality the person who arouses fear is “evil,” but with the master morality it is in fact the “good” person who is able to arouse fear. This revenge took the form of translating the virtues of the noble aristocrat into evils. Nietzsche’s great protest against the dominant Western morality was that it exalted the mediocre values of the “herd,” which “knows nothing of the fine impulses of great accumulations of strength, as something high, or possibly as the standard of all things.” Incredibly, the “herd mentality” in time overcame the master morality by succeeding in making all the noble qualities appear to be vices and all the weak qualities appear to be virtues. The positive affirmation of life in the master morality was made to seem “evil” and something for which one should have a sense of “guilt.” The fact is, Nietzsche says, that men with a still natural nature, barbarians in every terrible sense of the word, men of prey, still in possession of unbroken strength of will and desire for power, threw themselves upon weaker, more moral, more peaceful races. . . . At the commencement, the noble caste was always the barbarian caste: their superiority did not consist first of all in their physical, but in their psychical power—they were complete men.
But the power of the master race was broken by the undermining of its psychological strength. Against the natural impulse to exert aggressive strength, the weak races erected elaborate psychic defenses. New values and new ideals, such as peace and equality, were put forward under the guise of “the fundamental principle of society.” This, Nietzsche said, was a not-so-subtle desire on the part of the weak to undermine the power of the strong. The weak have created a negative psychological attitude toward the most natural human drives. This slave morality is, Nietzsche says, “a Will to the denial of life, a principle of dissolution and decay.” But, he continues, a skillful psychological analysis of the herd’s resentment and its desire to exact revenge against the strong will show what must be done. That is, we must “resist all sentimental weakness: life is essentially appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity, obtrusion of peculiar forms . . . and at the least, putting it mildest, exploitation.”
The Will to Power
Exploitation, according to Nietzsche, is not some inherently degenerate human action. Instead, it belongs “to the nature of the living being as a primary function.” Exploitation is “a consequence of the intrinsic Will to Power, which is precisely the Will to Life—a fundamental fact of all history.” The Will to Power is a central drive within human nature to dominate one’s environment. This is more than simply the will to survive. It is, rather, an inner impulse to vigorously affirm all of our individual powers. As Nietzsche says, “the strongest and highest Will to Life does not find expression in a miserable struggle for existence, but in a Will to War. A Will to Power, a Will to Overpower!”
European morality denied the central role of the Will to Power—and did so in a dishonest manner. Nietzsche put the blame for this on the slavish morality of Christianity. He writes, “I regard Christianity as the most fatal and seductive lie that has ever yet existed—as the greatest and most impious lie.” He was appalled that Europe should be subjected to the morality of that small group of wretched outcasts who clustered around Jesus. Imagine, he said, “the morality of paltry people as the measure of all things.” This he considered “the most repugnant kind of degeneracy that civilization has ever brought into existence.” To Nietzsche it was incredible that in the New Testament “the least qualified people . . . have their say in its pages in regard to the greatest problems of existence.” Christianity contradicts nature when it requires us to love our enemies, since nature’s injunction is to hate our enemies. Moreover, Christianity denies the natural origin of morality since it requires us to first love God before we can love anything. By injecting God into our affections, we subvert the immediate and natural moral standard that involves affirming life. By diverting our thinking toward God, we dilute our strongest and most vital energies. Nietzsche admitted that the “spiritual” people of Christianity performed invaluable services in Europe by offering comfort and courage to the suffering. But at what price was Christian charity achieved? The price, Nietzsche writes, was “the deterioration of the European race.” It was necessary “to reverse all estimates of value— that is what they had to do! And to shatter the strong, to spoil great hopes, to cast suspicion on the delight in beauty, to break down everything autonomous, manly, conquering, and imperious.” Christianity thus succeeded in inverting “all love of the earthly and of supremacy over the earth into hatred of the earth and earthly things.”
Nietzsche was willing for the weak herd to have their own morality, provided that they did not impose it on the higher ranks of humanity. Why should people of great creative abilities be reduced to the common level of mediocrity characteristic of the herd? Nietzsche spoke of rising “beyond good and evil,” by which he meant rising above the dominant herd morality of his day. He envisioned a new day when, once again, the truly complete person would achieve new levels of creative activity and thereby become a higher type of person—the Superperson (Übermensch ). This new person will not reject morality; he or she will reject only the negative morality of the herd. Again, Nietzsche argued that the morality based on the Will to Power is only an honest version of what the slave morality has carefully disguised. If the Superperson is “cruel,” Nietzsche said, we must recognize that, actually, almost everything that we now call “higher culture” is simply a spiritualized intensification of cruelty. “This is my thesis,” he said, that “the ‘wild beast’ has not been slain at all, it lives, it flourishes, it has only been—transfigured.” For example, ancient Romans took pleasure in the gladiatorial contests. Christians experience ecstasies of the cross. Spaniards delight at the gory sight of the bullfight. French workers are homesick for a bloody revolution. These are all expressions of cruelty.
From the vantage point of the master morality, the word cruelty refers simply to the basic Will to Power, which is a natural expression of strength. People are differentiated into ranks, and it is only quantity of power that determines and distinguishes one’s rank. Thus, ideals such as political and social equality are nonsensical. There can be no equality where there are in fact different degrees of power. Equality can only mean the leveling downward of everyone to the mediocrity of the herd. Nietzsche wanted to preserve the natural distinction between two types of people, namely, between that “type which represents ascending life and a type which represents decadence, decomposition, weakness.” To be sure, a higher culture will always require a mediocre herd, but only to make possible the development and emergence of the Superperson. If the Superperson is to emerge, he or she must go beyond good and evil as conceived by the lower ranks.
Revaluation of All Morals
What does Nietzsche want to put in the place of traditional morality, which he clearly believed was dying? His positive recommendations are not so clear as his critical analysis. However, we can infer much of the content of his new values from his rejection of the slave morality. If the slave morality originated in resentment and revenge, there must again occur a revaluation of all values. By revaluation Nietzsche did not mean the creation of a new table of moral values. He meant rather to declare war on the presently accepted values, like Socrates “applying the knife vivisectionally to the very virtues of the time.” Since traditional morality is a perversion of original natural morality, revaluation must consist in rejecting traditional morality in the name of honesty and accuracy. Revaluation implies that all the “stronger motives are still extant, but that now they appear under false names and false valuations, and have not yet become conscious of themselves.” It is not necessary to legislate new values but only to reverse values once again. Just as “Christianity was a revaluation of all the values of antiquity,” so today the dominant morality must be rejected in favor of our original and deepest nature. Thus, Nietzsche’s plan of revaluation was essentially a critical analysis of modern human ideals. He showed that what modern people called “good” was not at all virtuous. Their so-called truth was disguised selfishness and weakness, and their religion was a skillful creation of psychological weapons with which moral pygmies domesticated natural giants. Once the disguise is removed from modern morality, then true values will emerge.
In the final analysis moral values must be built on our true human nature and our environment. Unlike Darwin, who stressed external circumstances when describing the evolution of the species, Nietzsche focused on the internal power within individuals, which is capable of shaping and creating events—“a power which uses and exploits the environment.” Nietzsche’s grand hypothesis was that everywhere and in everything the Will to Power seeks to express itself. “This world,” he says, “is the Will to Power—and nothing else.” Life itself is a multiplicity of forces, “a lasting form of processes of assertions of force.” People’s psychological makeup shows that our preoccupation with pleasure and pain reflects a striving toward an increase of power. Pain can be the spur for exerting power to overcome an obstacle, whereas pleasure can involve a feeling of increased power.
Nietzsche’s notion of the Will to Power is most clearly represented in the attitudes and behavior of the Superperson. We have already seen that Nietzsche rejected the concept of equality. He also showed that morality must suit each rank. Even after the revaluation of all values, the “common herd” will not be intellectually capable of reaching the heights of the “free spirits.” In short, there can be no “common good.” Great things, Nietzsche says, remain for the great, “everything rare for the rare.” The Superperson will be rare but is the next stage in human evolution. History is moving not toward some abstract developed “humanity” but toward the emergence of some exceptional people; the Superperson is the goal. But the Superperson will not be the product of a mechanical process of evolution. The next stage can be reached only when superior people have the courage to revalue all values and respond with freedom to their internal Will to Power. Human beings need to be surpassed, and it is the Superperson who represents the highest level of development and expression of physical, intellectual, and emotional strength. The Superperson will be the truly free person for whom nothing is forbidden except what obstructs the Will to Power. The Superperson will be the very embodiment of the spontaneous affirmation of life.
Nietzsche did not think that his Superperson would be a tyrant. To be sure, there would be much of the Dionysian element within the Superperson. But these passions would be controlled, thereby harmonizing the animal nature with the intellect, and giving style to his or her behavior. We should not confuse such a Superperson with a totalitarian bully. As a model Nietzsche had in mind his hero Goethe, as well as “the Roman Caesar with Christ’s soul.” As Nietzsche’s thought matured, his ideal person would have to possess a balanced unity of the Dionysian and Apollonian elements. Earlier, when Wagner and Schopenhauer influenced his thought, Nietzsche criticized Socrates for having caused Western thought to take a wrong turn toward rationality. In later years he gained a greater appreciation for rationality. Even at the end, though, he believed that rationality must be used in the service of life and that life must not be sacrificed for knowledge. Still, Socrates was important historically precisely because he saved people from self-destruction. The lust for life, Nietzsche says, would then have led to wars of annihilation. The Dionysian element by itself leads to pessimism and destruction. So it was necessary to harness people’s energies, which required the kind of influence that Socrates provided. Although the Apollonian element of rationality risks subverting the vital streams of life, Nietzsche nevertheless believed that we cannot engage in life without some rational form-giving guidance. Socrates became important for Nietzsche precisely because this ancient philosopher was the first to see the proper relation between thought and life. Socrates recognized that thought serves life, whereas for other philosophers, life served thought and knowledge. Here, then, was Nietzsche’s ideal: the passionate person who has his or her passions under control.
Three nineteenth-century philosophers developed their views in critical reaction to German idealism. Kierkegaard rejected the rationalistic conception of human nature that was modeled after objective mathematical and scientific thinking. Such objectivity, he argued, cannot tell us about our individual selves. He instead emphasized a much more subjective notion of human existence, which involves conscious participation in an act, that is, being a participant in life rather than a mere spectator. For Kierkegaard my life involves a movement from what I am now, in a state of alienation from God, to what I ought to be as I subjectively experience God. This involves a movement through life in three stages of choice s. First, in the aesthetic stage I enjoy the widest variety of pleasures of the senses. When I realize that this will not result in true existence, I am faced with an either-or choice: remain in this stage or move on to the next. Second, in the ethical stage, I accept the limitations that moral responsibility imposes on me. When I realize that I cannot fulfill the moral law, I face another either-or: remain or move on to the next stage in a leap of faith. Third, in the religious stage, I have a nonrational experience of God as a subject.
A central point in Marx’s philosophy is dialectical materialism, the view that history is governed by causal economic forces, which are as mechanical as the laws that govern physics and biology. History, he argued, falls into five major epochs: (1) primitive communal, (2) slave, (3) feudal, (4) capitalist, and, as a prediction of things to come, (5) socialist and communist. Within these epochs there are social conflicts where a lower class of people is economically exploited by a higher class, for example, slaves and slave owners. According to Marx, the single economic issue generating each social conflict is property ownership and the fruits of production. These class conflicts create a dialectical movement of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, which brings about the next epoch. This dialectal flow of history through class conflict is mechanically determined and even predictable. By analyzing the economic laws underlying this dialectical flow, Marx predicted that the various class conflicts throughout history would eventually bring an end to the exploitation of workers within capitalism and lead to socialism and communism. The lower classes who labor within a capitalist system experience alienation; that is, the workers are separated from the product of their labor. All people are intimately connected with their labor, but, within capitalism, they are forced to give their labor and what they produce to the capitalist owner for little pay and in wretched working conditions. Workers then become alienated from themselves, from what they produce with their labor, and from their “species-being,” which is the component of human nature that connects us with others in society.
Nietzsche argued that modern society was changing in such a way that traditional values were collapsing, and a new set of values were needed to prevent chaos. Modern science was undermining religion, thus creating the death of God, and evolutionary theory depicted humans as just another type of animal. We need to thus replace deteriorating religious values with new ones, and, for Nietzsche, aesthetics was the most promising alternative to religion. Inspired by the Greeks, he argued that aesthetic values result from a blending of two principles of chaos and order within human nature, symbolized by the Greek gods Dionysus and Apollo. Art emerges as an attempt to bring order to our unrestrained impulses. This offers a value system that can replace the unnatural and life-denying negativity of religious ethics. Within history, Nietzsche argued, there have been two types of morality. There is a master morality that is strong-willed, self-determining, and seeks to dominate one’s environment. Then there is a slave morality that is weak-willed and reacts against the exploitation of the strong-willed, such as by advocating the value of equality. European culture, he argued, has adopted the slavish morality of religion, and it may be inevitable for the masses to take this approach. At the same time, however, we need the morality of the Superperson who rises above slave morality and embraces the dominating will to the power of the master morality. This Superperson would not be a tyrant, but would instead possess a balanced unity of the Dionysian and Apollonian elements. Ultimately, according to Nietzsche, we must revaluate morality by rejecting traditional slavish values and recognizing the values of the Superperson.
1. Kierkegaard argued that objective rational thought cannot express what is essential to human existence, and, instead we need subjective experience. Discuss how the story of Abraham expresses this point for Kierkegaard.
2. Discuss Kierkegaard’s three stages, and think of your own examples to illustrate the aesthetic and religious stages.
3. Discuss Kierkegaard’s concept of the leap of faith and how it is essential to moving one from the ethical to the religious stage.
4. Explain Marx’s five epochs of human history and how the economics of property ownership have generated class conflict within each.
5. Explain Marx’s three characteristics of class struggle under capitalism, and discuss whether Marx has accurately represented the capitalist view.
6. Discuss Marx’s notion of the alienation of labor and whether you think it accurately depicts the working condition within capitalism.
7. Discuss Marx’s notion of “species-being” and whether it is compromised within capitalism as Marx believed.
8. Explain Nietzsche’s notion of the Dionysian and Apollonian tension within human nature and how this generates a value of aesthetics.
9. Explain, for Nietzsche, what the difference is between slave morality and master morality, and give examples of each.
10. Discuss Nietzsche’s notion of the Superperson, and whether you think the values of such a person can be the highest level of morality as Nietzsche believed.