Nietzsche, the Artistic Philosopher with a Hammer

Nietzsche, the Artistic Philosopher with a Hammer

An understanding of the motives of the existentialist philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche can be found in his earliest book, The Birth of Tragedy.

It was in the Birth of Tragedy that Nietzsche began his search for meaning – or more particularly, a questioning of what gives meaning to life. 

He found a solution in the culture of the ancient Greeks, who had the brutal truth revealed to them through myth and metaphor. 

Nietzsche felt that Greeks “were grappling with pessimism”, and that they recognized the brutal truth -- that life was filled with angst and discomfort. 

In order to survive this knowledge he believed that the ancient Greeks created their own gods and myths, in which humans were shown as being “capable of greatness, always of significance”.

Nietzsche asserted that the ancient Greeks had achieved a balance: they recognized “the horror of existence”, but crafted illusions of “greatness” and significance” about themselves in order to make life palatable. The Greeks, he believed had achieved this balance through the duality of the Dionysian and Apollinian. 

Nietzsche saw the Dionysian spirit as being passionate and communal, but ultimately destructive. Staring too long into the truth – the Dionysian – would drive one insane. 

He felt that the Apollinian, by contrast, was orderly and individualistic. But it was also an illusion, for it ignored the base truth of existence. Over-reliance on either was destructive. 

Nietzsche asserted that a balance between the two was the basis of fine art, which the early Greek tragedies has achieved. 

It was in these tragedies that the Greeks were able to glimpse the Dionysian nature of existence – in a controlled setting:

“The chanting of the chorus was the first form of Athenian tragedy… Captivated by music, audience members abandoned their usual sense of themselves as isolated individuals and felt themselves to be part of a larger, frenzied whole.”

It was in these tragedies that the audience could peek into the Dionysian abyss and pull back, getting a glimmer of the truth of mankind’s communal existence. 

Nietzsche believed that tragedy served an important role for the Athenians, for it provided a solution to a problem which plagued all humans – the internal battle against angst and pessimism. 

These ancient Greek tragedies, as a perfectly balanced form of art, justified mankind’s very existence.

Myth, to Nietzsche, is the powerful force which binds society together. By discarding this balance and duality, the ancient Greeks lost an essential part of their community; they became “sick” by embracing the Socratic/Platonic illusion of rationality.  

In order to show this downfall in a more direct and visceral way, Nietzsche proclaimed the “death of God” by giving voice to a madman who proclaimed: 

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

What was most holiest and powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe the blood off us?”

The madman, shouting out these words in a crowded marketplace, was greeted by astonishment and silence. The madman, unperturbed, continued:

“I come too early … my time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way … it has not yet reached the ears of man … this deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars … and yet they have done it to themselves.”

Nietzsche’s fictional madman predicts the death of God, who has been killed by humankind. When mankind discovers that they have “destroyed their own faith in God”, “universal madness will break out”. 

This proclamation is not a matter of metaphysics of theology; it is a diagnosis of contemporary civilization. It is a critical analysis of modern society, a “revolt against … the (modern) state of mind and moral attitude.” 

It is a condemnation of a society who built their societal myths on a foundation of ash and rotted wood; a condemnation of a society that has severed its links to the communal and the Dionysian, methodically and purposefully destroying its cultural myths and faith in the divine. 

When the last myth dies, when God is killed by the myth of rationality, so too will the culture die – Nietzsche predicted that “universal madness will break out”.

Nietzsche understood the death of God and the resulting tragedy that would ensue all too well – and it is in this context that he began his search for meaning, in a world bereft of myth – where “any `meaning’ of life in the sense of a supernatural purpose [was] gone.” 

Much like the ancient Greeks, he began this search for meaning – his “frantic attempt to find personal survival” -- with the knowledge that life was without any purpose. 

Like the ancient Greeks, he began creating in order to justify his existence; and thus, he began walking the fine line between illusion and insanity. 

Nietzsche’s embrace of “delight and danger” became more pronounced as his condition progressed – “he showed a growing lack of inhibition” in his final months of writing. 

After his final collapse in Christmas of 1888 he penned his last letters to friends. One of the letters read, in its entirety: “To my maestro Pietro. Sing me a new song: the world is transfigured and all the heavens rejoice.”

Though Nietzsche fell off the edge and fell prey to insanity, it was not something which he feared. 

It was, in Nietzschean terms, the path of an artist who had stood too long at the canvass peering into the Dionysian abyss: 

“To create things upon which time tries its teeth in vain; in form and in substance to strive after a little immortality – I have never been modest enough to demand less from myself.”

Unapologetic to the end, he found his path to meaning and immortality in creation. 

Staring deep into the abyss, in Nietzschean terms, leads to madness. Just as accepting the corrupt and broken myths of modern society leads to emotional trauma and disconnection.

Nietzsche drove himself insane; not a viable model to follow. 

His exhortations to rise above our instincts, reptile brain and emotional immaturity are worthy of study and reflection. 

Because if you don’t rise above your own internal limitations, you will remain small. A part of the herd: 

Nietzsche’s analysis of the world as broken and corrupt and rejecting God is quite relevant today, as we follow myths like psychology and small-man philosophies like stoicism and thereby accept untruths that lead to societal destruction and personal self destruction. 

Nietzsche showed through his actions that perfection is a worry of small men; you do the best you can. Rise above your base instincts, then fix and build and create. 

Another German writer, Martin Luther, had similar thoughts on the impossibility of perfectionism and the value of difficult work: 

“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. 

We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. 

All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”

– Martin Luther

Not every dream for the future is of wealth or power, some men dream of working hard for a fair wage and raising a good family. 

Some hearts sing in the form of high art or philosophy or religious scripture. Art and philosophy and sacredness that contextualizes the drudgery and unjustness of modern society, and inspires us to reach higher. 

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