Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a thinker at war with his times. To understand Nietzsche’s vision of the death of God and the will to power, we need to understand the world that he lived in.
Nietzsche’s nineteenth century was a time of industry and transformation. Germany was a major industrial and colonial power, unified under Emperor Wilhelm I. European society was being reshaped from within by the emerging middle class, while the working class railed against their conditions and dreamed of revolution as they browsed the works of Marx. Everyone was looking ahead, inspired by the possibilities of science, democracy, socialism and progress.
Nietzsche smelled something rotten at the base of it all. He peeled back the layers of polite conversation to unveil a simple truth. There was no place for God in this brave new world of science and progress. Indeed, most progressives didn’t see a need to make a place for God because they no longer believed in Him. This reflected a major social and cultural shift. God had ruled European society through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance through his emissaries in the Church and State. Religious faith had shaped and colored life at all levels of society, from the rituals of the King’s court to the observances of the working poor. But God had been sidelined through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the rise of science and the secular state, undercutting the power of the Church. By Nietzsche’s time, God had become a private matter, if not a superstition.
God took ill the day that it became acceptable to question His existence in polite company. He went into seizure the day that science established it was a better guide to reality than faith. ‘God is dead’, Nietzsche declared. ‘All of us are His murderers’ (The Gay Science [GS], §125).
People often assume that Nietzsche sought to dance on the grave of God. Nietzsche’s actual position is more interesting and complex. Certainly, Nietzsche believed that the death of God opened up amazing possibilities for free thought. ‘At long last the horizon appears free to us again’, he enthused. ‘[T]he sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never been such an “open sea”’ (GS, §343). Yet, Nietzsche also saw that the death of God threatened Western nations with a moral malaise. For centuries, the idea of God had provided a metaphysical underpinning for moral values. Without this underpinning, Nietzsche surmised, the moral values of mainstream society would eventually come to seem arbitrary and false. Already, in Nietzsche’s time, leading thinkers were questioning core values that had maintained the social order for centuries. Darwin, Marx and Dostoyevsky were discussing morality in evolutionary, economic and existential terms. Soon, morality would be revealed for what it truly was: a human invention.
What then, Nietzsche wondered? Nihilism, he answered in his final books. ‘What does nihilism mean? The highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking; “why” finds no answer’ (The Will to Power [WP], §2). If God is dead, everything is permitted.
Nihilism was the problem that Nietzsche sought to respond to in his philosophical work. Behind the myriad changes that were taking place in nineteenth century society, there was a cultural shift that few were attending to: the implosion of the Christian moral value system. This was no small event. All across Europe and the world, people were being affected by the shift without realizing it. Fascism, anarchism and pessimism were on the rise. Meaninglessness and absurdity were being celebrated as serious intellectual positions. Meanwhile, middle class society bubbled along, oblivious to the problem. Nietzsche looked ahead and saw a crisis on the horizon. If nothing were done, he realized, the twentieth century would know the most terrible wars that the world had ever seen.
The wars came and they were terrible indeed. Nietzsche, who died in 1900, never saw how Nazi thinkers twisted his philosophy, substituting a jackbooted thug for his vision of the value-creating Overman. As philosophers of change, the most interesting thing about Nietzsche’s status as a historical figure is the way that he responded to the crisis he saw unfolding around him. Nietzsche’s response is exemplary. Nietzsche not only identified the crisis – he sought to transform it by turning it in a positive direction. Nietzsche sought to recast the death of God as an incredible opportunity. If the death of God had undermined traditional moral values, Nietzsche reflected, it was necessary to create a new system of values to take their place.
This is where Nietzsche saw his opportunity. Drawing on his prodigious intellectual powers, Nietzsche set out to develop a new system of moral evaluation and to explain how it could lift human beings to a higher evolutionary level. He called his system, will to power.
Will to power is a tool for cultivating new values in a world that has been drained of value through the collapse of the Christian value system.
Will to power is not a drive to dominate people and things. It is not a desire to be alpha dog and leader of the pack. Hitler read Nietzsche in this way, but he was wrong. Hitler’s mistake was to equate ‘power’ with political authority. This, however, is not how Nietzsche understands power. Power, for Nietzsche, is existential capacity – the capacity to act and exist. Zarathustra (the hero of Nietzsche’s masterpiece, Thus Spoke Zarathustra) is a humble sage. He is the teacher of the Overman and the will to power, but he isn’t interested in political authority. When the people in the marketplace mock Zarathustra and run him out of town, he doesn’t respond by raising an army and invading them. He wanders the earth, dancing and singing, offering joyful wisdom to whoever will listen: cultivate your will to power.
Thinking, reflecting, talking, listening, singing and dancing are all powers, in Nietzsche’s sense. They are existential capacities – capacities to act and exist. To look at a painting or listen to a piece of music and feel the sentiment that is conveyed by it – this is an existential capacity. To be able to produce a painting or write a piece of music is an even greater capacity. To perform a task with the facility and proficiency that leads others to say that you are a genuine example of this or that kind of person – butcher, baker or candlestick maker – this is an existential capacity. You are applying existential capacities right now in reading this text: the capacity to recognize symbols as words and to derive meaning from these words, perhaps relating them to personal experiences in life; the capacity to remember the content of past chapters and to link it to the present discussion, perhaps projecting forward an idea of where the discussion is headed, or anticipating an outcome to be revealed down the track. All these things are powers, in Nietzsche’s sense. We are empowered through having the capacity to think, feel, do and be.
To desire power, in Nietzsche’s sense, is not a sign of weakness or corruption. To ‘will’ power is the natural response of a healthy animal to the myriad opportunities that life presents it. Will to power is the drive and desire experienced by all living creatures to employ those powers that make them feel uniquely capable and alive. Lions desire the opportunity to spring into action with teeth and claws. Lambs desire the opportunity to casually munch on grass, far from the danger of lions. When we employ the powers that make us feel uniquely capable and alive, be they powers to pounce on prey or to eat and digest huge quantities of grass, we live to our full extent. We become what we are capable of being – and we love it!
Empowerment is a kick. When we feel empowered, we feel supercharged, ripe with potential, overflowing with happiness, attuned to the possibilities of existence. It is no wonder that we ‘will’ the opportunity to use our powers. We desire power because the feeling of being empowered is the very best feeling in life.
What is your will to power? To answer this question, you need to get clear on the kinds of things that you find enabling and rewarding in life. Some people find reward in helping others. Some find reward in art and creation. Some find reward on the sports field, at the office, climbing mountains, riding waves, or jumping out of planes. We all have our will to power, defined by our key talents and capacities. The important thing is that we discover what these talents and capacities are.
Try not to set too high a bar for yourself when assessing your talents and capacities. Not all our powers are superpowers. Sometimes the kinds of things that empower us are relatively mundane. You shouldn’t feel bad about this. Being a great parent, wife or husband, creating a beautiful house or cooking up a storm are wonderful ways to feel empowered. Nor should you feel concerned if your powers seem to centre about setting up comfortable, enjoyable situations. Just because you are empowered by comfort zones doesn’t mean that you are destined to be caught in them. Every sailor needs a port to return to when they are not venturing out on uncharted seas. If your greatest power lies in building a harbour – affirm it! There is nothing wrong with enjoying comfort zones so long as you are able to step out of them and challenge yourself every now and again.
Some people never embrace this challenge. The result is that they never scope out their full range of powers and achieve their true potential. Some people don’t have the opportunity to do this. Others simply don’t try. If this is how you are living – stop now. Don’t waste yourself, as Bruce Lee used to say. There is nothing more depressing than seeing a talented individual waste their life by neglecting to take advantage of their powers. It is like watching a flower starved of water and light. First it loses its color. Then it starts to wilt. Finally it withers and dies.
If this is how you are living, say to yourself: enough! Identify your powers and use them. Cultivate your personal capacity. Celebrate your will to power.
This post is excerpted from Chapter 3 of Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide