Never one to back away from controversy, Friedrich Nietzsche assails the Christian Church in Twilight of the Idols. In this classic work, he sets out to substitute the morality of the Catholic and the Protestant Churches with that of Dionysian morality. Twilight of the Idols furthermore lays the foundation for key arguments that Nietzsche more fully develops in later writings.
About the Author
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born in the village of Röcken in Saxony on October 15, 1844. Nietzsche, whose father was a Lutheran pastor, spent a year as a theology student at the University of Bonn, before studying classical philology at the University of Leipzig. Despite poor health and desperate loneliness, Nietzsche managed to produce a book (or a book-length supplement to an earlier publication) every year from 1878 to 1887. In early January 1889, he collapsed in the street in Turin, Italy, confused and incoherent. He spent the last eleven years of his life institutionalized or under the care of his family.
Read an Excerpt
Friedrich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols is perhaps the brightest star in the constellation of masterpieces written in 1888, the last year of his extremely productive career. It is his final verdict on many important issues. In Ecce Homo, he calls it “an exception among books: there is none richer in substance, more independent, more subversive—more evil.” (IV, ii, § 1.) Like many of Nietzsche’s earlier works, it touches upon numerous topics; but it does so with a grace and style and purpose that is unique. It is a feast of original insights on human nature, on the origins and original errors of morality and philosophy, on education, on the contemporary German character, on Germany’s growing sense of nationalism and its dangers, and on Nietzsche’s conception of “the Dionysian attitude.” In its style, its brevity, and its organization, Twilight of the Idols is a tour de force of a master writer and thinker.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born in Röcken, Saxony, on October 15, 1844. He was the first of three children born to Karl Ludwig Nietzsche, a Lutheran pastor, and his wife, Franziska Oehler. In the summer of 1849, Nietzsche’s father succumbed to “softening of the brain” (Gehirnerweichung) and died. After the death of Nietzsche’s infant brother the following winter, his mother took him and his sister, Elisabeth, to live in Naumburg. In 1858, Nietzsche was awarded a scholarship to Pfortaschule, the most prestigious boarding school in Germany. For the next six years he flourished under its strict educational regimen. He graduated in 1864, and spent two semesters at the University of Bonn as a dissatisfied theology student. The following year he matriculated at the University of Leipzig and began pursuing what he then regarded as his true calling, classical philology. At this time he also discovered the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), a philosopher who would have a profound effect upon his views.
In 1869 Nietzsche’s fortune changed dramatically. Although he had yet to finish his dissertation, he was offered the post of Professor Extraordinarius in Classical Philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland. This windfall was due largely to the influence of Friedrich Ritschl (1806–76): Nietzsche’s teacher and mentor at Leipzig, and one of the most respected philologists of his day. In his letter of recommendation, Ritschl praised his young student’s abilities in philology and history, and concluded by stating that, “whatever [Nietzsche] wants to do he will be able to do.” Soon after assuming his professorial duties in Switzerland, Nietzsche became an intimate friend of the composer Richard Wagner (1813–83) and his significant other, Cosima von Bülow (1837–1930), daughter of Franz Liszt, who were living in a villa near Basel. For the next few years Wagner would serve as Nietzsche’s confidant, sounding board, object of adoration, and ersatz father.
Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, appeared in 1872. The book’s characterization of the creative impetus behind Greek drama in terms of a synthesis of the instinctive Dionysian and the rational Apollinian impulses, and its description of the Socratic attitude of reason over instinct as one of decadence, represent seminal moments for the subsequent developments of Nietzsche’s thought. However, the book’s unabashed praise of Wagner’s “music of the future” seemed to offset much of its merit in the eyes of the academic community. From 1873 to 1876, Nietzsche published four essays that comprise his Untimely Meditations. These were followed by Human, All Too Human (1878), its two addenda (Assorted Opinions and Maxims  and The Wanderer and His Shadow ), Daybreak (1881), and The Gay Science (1882). These works, from 1878 to 1882, were expressions of what he called his “free-thinking” period. Despite the fact that Nietzsche was suffering from extreme health problems and depression, these books express an exceedingly positive attitude toward human existence. His criticisms of past and present psychological and sociological “diseases” are presented with devastating clarity and rapier style through Nietzsche’s masterful use of aphorisms.
In 1876, owing to the persistent bad health that plagued him his entire life, e.g., migraine headaches, painful eye pressure and diminished sight, and prolonged bouts of vomiting, Nietzsche was relieved of his teaching duties at Basel and was provided a modest pension, which allowed him to travel throughout Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and southern France in an attempt to find a climate both amenable to his precarious health and conducive to his productivity. His literary experimentalism and philosophical power reaches a crescendo in his next book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–85), which he regarded as “the greatest present that has ever been made to [humanity] so far.” (Ecce Homo, preface, 4.) This was followed, in 1886, by Beyond Good and Evil, a more organized exposition of his thought. A year later he published the three essays titled On the Genealogy of Morals and produced a new edition of The Gay Science, to which he added a preface, some poems, and a fifth book.
In the amazingly productive year 1888, Nietzsche completed five books: The Wagner Case, Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, Ecce Homo, and Nietzsche contra Wagner. The first and the last of these were described as “companion pieces.” They were intended to make clear the antithetical views of Wagner and Nietzsche, and to illustrate the dramatic contrast between their radically different conceptions of art and life. The Antichrist was written as the first of a four-part work to be titled The Will to Power (Der Wille zur Macht), which involved nothing less than the revaluation (Umwertung) of all values. The Antichrist is a dissection of the motives of what he regarded as the most dangerous and unscrupulous value system that infects Western civilization—the Christian Church and its “perverse” values and ideals. Ecce Homo (literally, “behold the man”—Nietzsche’s ironic adaptation of the words spoken by Pilate when Jesus was brought before him) is a fascinating, utterly self-serving self-examination of Nietzsche’s own writings and personality. Although much of the book is an exercise in uninhibited self-aggrandizement, it does offer some interesting insights into his motives and his self-imposed tasks as an author. A good deal of this material from 1888 is polemical in the extreme and provides the critical foundation for his proposed revaluation of all values: Nietzsche’s avowed “destiny” to expose the unnatural, mendacious, and injurious character and motives of Christianity; and to provide a more natural, more responsible, and healthier approach to human existence. This program was, however, cut short by his mental collapse in January 1889, brought on by the tertiary stage of syphilis. He spent the last eleven years of his life in institutions or under the care of his sister, Elisabeth. Nietzsche died of a heart attack on August 25, 1900.
With the exception of the strange and whimsical The Wagner Case, which was published in September 1888, Twilight of the Idols is the only book composed during Nietzsche’s flurry of creativity that year which he actually “published”; that is to say, that he wrote and edited to completion. He began work on it at the end of June and finished in September. He had originally intended the book to be titled Idle Leisure of a Psychologist (Müssiggang eines Psychologen). The leisure, he explains in a letter to his old friend, Paul Deussen, dated September 14, 1888, is a moment of relaxation,
from an immeasurably difficult and decisive task which, once understood, will split the history of mankind into two halves. Its meaning in four words: revaluation of all values. Much that has been the subject to debate will no longer be an open question.... Being Christian, to name just one result, will from then on be indecent…. (Fuss and Shapiro, p. 124)
Clearly, the strain of the tremendous task Nietzsche had set for himself, the revaluation of all values, weighed heavily on his mind throughout 1888. Just as his health fluctuated between the agonies of migraines and bouts of vomiting to the ecstasies of overwhelming pleasure and self-assurance, so too his writings ranged from “the rollicking farce against Wagner” (i.e., Nietzsche Contra Wagner) to his bringing about “a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a decision that was conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far” (Ecce Homo, IV, 1)—the revaluation of all values, or the four-part treatise, The Will to Power.
In September 1888, Nietzsche described his “idle leisure” book to his friend and disciple Peter Gast. Nietzsche soon received a reply that indicated that Gast was aghast at the humility of the intended title of the book. At the end of September he wrote to Nietzsche:
The tread of a giant, enough to make the mountains tremble in their depths, is no longer an idle stroll…. Oh, I beg you, if an incapable man may beg: a more resplendent, lustrous title! (Quoted in Cate, p. 523)
Never a champion for humility or understatement, Nietzsche agreed, and devised the clever, multi-semantical title, Twilight of the Idols, with the subtitle, How to Philosophize with a Hammer. At one level, the German title, Die Götzen-Dämmerung, was clearly a play upon the title of the fourth and final part of Richard Wagner’s monumental Ring Cycle, the musical drama, Götterdämmerung, “Twilight of the Gods.” In Wagner’s majestic work, the naïve hero, Siegfried, overcomes his adversary, the monster Fafner, with the refashioned sword of his grandfather, Wotan. The drama concludes with the death of Siegfried, the immolation of the heroine, Brünhilde, the destruction of Valhalla and the old Germanic pantheon, and the dawn of a new religious worldview based on love and self-sacrifice, i.e., Christianity. Nietzsche, with his title, was clearly playing with the similarities and distinct contrasts between his book and Wagner’s drama.
For Wagner, the twilight of the gods refers to the replacement of the Germanic pagan gods with the new and improved theology of Christianity. For Nietzsche, twilight of the “idols” means the demise of the false gods that modern civilization has fashioned and objectified. The book’s subtitle, How to Philosophize with the Hammer, has special meaning as well. In Wagner’s musical drama, Siegfried “tests” the reforged sword of Wotan by destroying the anvil which he used in recreating it, and by using it to destroy Fafner. Nietzsche’s weapon of choice is a hammer. At the end of the first part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold, the god Thor uses his hammer to “clear things up,” i.e., to dispel the mist, despondency, and confusion that oppressed the gods and to clear the way to Valhalla, the gods’ new and improved home. Similarly, in Twilight of the Idols, when Nietzsche philosophizes with a hammer, his intention is to clear things up, i.e., to dispel the mistakes, mendacity, and delusions that humanity has created and endured in philosophy, religion, and morality, and to create a less ethereal “rainbow bridge” to a new, more honest, and more productive future. Unlike Wagner’s Siegfried, who uses his sword, Nothung, to destroy what it strikes through the external power of its wielder, Nietzsche’s philosophical hammer is described as a tuning fork. He merely taps the idols to determine whether they are solid and valuable, or hollow and worthless. Of course, in each case the latter conclusion is drawn. This approach is intended to show that these views, these idols, are inherently false, hollow, and unsubstantial. They shatter and fall of their own weight (or lack thereof) through a simple examination of their origins and essential claims. Unlike The Antichrist, where Nietzsche comes out with guns blazing against Christian morality, in the present book he seems content to simply diagnose the diseases that have infected Western civilization for over two thousand years, and allow these fatuous fictions to die of natural, internal causes. Yet he describes the book as “a great declaration of war”: a war not against the beliefs of a particular age or culture, but rather against the so-called “eternal idols,”
which are here struck with a hammer as with a tuning fork—there are certainly no idols which are older, more convinced, and more inflated. Neither are there any more hollow. (Twilight, preface)
Around the time of the book’s composition, Nietzsche was reading the essays of the British scientist and statesman Francis Bacon (1561–1626), one of the great innovators of scientific methodology. According to Bacon, the enquiry into truth requires, first, that we clear the ground of our prejudices and preconceptions. There are four great obstacles, or “idols” (idola), that must be overcome before we are in a position to acquire true and valuable inductive knowledge. He describes these as (1) the “idols of the tribe,” or the common tendencies of all people toward mental laziness and the practice of accepting unjustified, prejudicial claims as true; (2) the “idols of the den,” or the particular beliefs of the individual which go unquestioned or unexamined; (3) the “idols of the marketplace,” which involve misconceptions and misunderstandings grounded in the sloppy use of language to describe and define things; and (4) the “idols of the theater,” or the beliefs we accept on the basis of authority alone, such as the “truths” of Christianity. Nietzsche’s Twilight is his attempt to overcome and dispel similar obstacles to clear and honest thinking. As we will see, he describes these dangerous and misguided “idols” as the “four great errors” that have stood in the way of our intellectual and human progress for millennia. Our acknowledgment and correction of these errors are at the heart of his overall program, the revaluation of all values.
Beginning with a short, personal preface, the book is presented in eleven “chapters.” In the preface he characterizes the book as a cheerful diversion from his now obsessive task:
a task of such fatal import that he who undertakes it is compelled every now and then to rush out into the sunlight in order to shake himself free from an earnestness that becomes crushing, far too crushing.
The book, then, serves two purposes. It is, for Nietzsche, a cheerful, relaxing diversion from the overwhelmingly difficult and profoundly important work in progress, The Will to Power. But it also serves as a critical ground-clearing for the formidable task before him. Here he confronts and analyzes many of the important problems and errors which his proposed magnum opus will obliterate and correct.
Near the end of Twilight, Nietzsche notes that “it is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book—what everyone else does not say in a book” (“Skirmishes of an Untimely Man,” § 51). He is referring to his masterful use of aphorisms to express his ideas. An aphorism is a relatively short, pithy passage. The length may be a page, a paragraph, or a one-liner, and the meaning may be obvious, or it may require pondering, which quite often leads to a kind of epiphany: the realization of something profound behind the appearance of simplicity or ambiguity. Nietzsche had utilized this mode of presentation exclusively in the books of his “free-thinking” period (i.e., Human, All Too Human; The Dawn; and The Gay Science), and he employed it in some of his later works (i.e., Beyond Good and Evil and The Antichrist). He regarded himself as the unsurpassed master of this mode of expression. Nowhere is this claim more vindicated than in the first section of Twilight, “Maxims and Missiles.” This part contains forty-four short aphorisms that often reverberate with profundity and insight. They exemplify Nietzsche’s “depth psychology” at its best. It is here, too, that we find one of Nietzsche’s most quoted (and misquoted) observations: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger” (§ 8). The section concludes with the succinct statement that, as through a glass, darkly, encapsulates Nietzsche’s “later” philosophy, and would appear in § 1 of The Antichrist: “The formula of my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal” (“Maxims and Missiles,” § 44).
Chapter 2, “The Problem of Socrates,” begins where Nietzsche’s authorship began. In his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, he had argued for the philosophically heretical view that, instead of seeing Socrates as the ultimate outcome and high water mark of ancient philosophy, Socrates was a decadent. By making reason and logic the correct and final method for the discovery of truth, and by regarding the instincts and feelings as lower, untrustworthy, and dangerous aspects of human nature, Socrates set the tone for philosophy, for the conception of “truth,” and for morality, for the next 2,400 years. In Twilight, Nietzsche returns to this issue. He maintains that Socrates and Plato were “symptoms of decline, as instruments in the disintegration of Hellas” (“The Problem of Socrates,” § 2). Throughout his career Nietzsche insisted that, contrary to virtually every philosopher before him, the histories of philosophy and of morality are built upon mistakes: the mistake of devaluating our sensuous natures in favor of our capacity to reason, and the mistake of equating reason, virtue, and happiness.
The essence of the ancient Greek worldview and the motive for their amazing artistic creativity reside, according to Nietzsche, in their terror of the arbitrary and dangerous characteristics of the natural world. Their capacity to impose their own meanings upon the world through creative activities, through human artifice such as sculpture, painting, epic and tragic literature, etc., gave human existence meaning and purpose. The intrinsically meaningless character of life became extrinsically meaningful through creative, human expressions grounded on instincts, not reason. Art was the Greeks’ way of redeeming existence. And one of the most fundamental instincts for them was the desire to overcome obstacles: to achieve a sense of self by the agon, by striving and overcoming a worthy adversary. We see it in the battles between Homer’s Achaean and Trojan heroes. We see it in the ancient Olympic competitions. It is evident later in the competitions among the rhapsodic poets. And it is clearly evident in the competitions among the Greek tragedians. (With the advent of tragic drama in the 5th century B.C.E., tragedians such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides presented their trilogy plays in competitions, whereby one was awarded a prize—usually monetary and always involving public recognition of superior skills.)
The point Nietzsche is making here is that, for the heroic period of ancient Greek history, the “meaning” of human existence is not something objectively provided to us. It is something we make, we create, we earn, by virtue of our instinctive nature. It is instinct that compels Homer’s hero, Diomedes, to engage in battle with the goddess, Aphrodite, and even with Ares, the god of war himself (Cf. Iliad, V). Reason would never dictate such rash behavior. It is ludicrous to imagine someone convincing Diomedes to fight the god of battle by the use of categorical syllogisms. According to Nietzsche, the advent of Socrates (and his literary correlate, Euripides) represents a degeneration of healthy human nature and instinct. Socrates turns the old view on its head. Human instincts are now the greatest danger to virtue and happiness. Reason reigns triumphant. In Plato’s Republic, we are told how the man ruled by instincts, the “tyrannical man” knows neither virtue (goodness) nor happiness. He is a slave to his impulses. The “just” man, however, always keeps his appetitive nature, his instincts, under the strict dictatorship of reason. Such a person is mentally sound, morally good, and really happy. How does Socrates arrive at this conclusion? Through reason, of course. Through dialectical argument, he shows us that dialectical argument is the best and truest expression of human nature.
This, then, is part of “The Problem of Socrates.” Reason is said to be the highest expression of human nature. Reason leads to virtue. And this, in turn, makes us happy. Everybody wants to be happy, and by emulating Socrates, the way to happiness is available to everyone. So while virtue had traditionally been the exclusive realm of the nobility, i.e., those, like the Homeric heroes, who acted instinctively to overcome obstacles or adversaries, it was now available to all people. Democratic ideals had replaced the ideals of individual accomplishment. The agon, the Greek characteristic of competition and individual victory which had motivated Homer’s heroes as well as the dramatists, had now become abstracted and conceptualized into something that was regarded as independent of, and superior to, the instincts, despite the fact that reason was, in fact, just the latest and greatest expression of those instincts.
The other part of “The Problem of Socrates” is intimately connected with the first part, but its consequences for the history of Western civilization have been far more sinister. According to Socrates, reason is more important, more real, than human passions and instincts. Reason is objective and publically accessible, while instincts are subjective and personal. Nietzsche begins the second chapter of Twilight by recounting the story of Socrates’ death. After Socrates drank the hemlock and was on the verge of dying, he spoke his last words to his friend Crito. Socrates told him to sacrifice a rooster to the god Asclepius on his behalf. It was customary to make a sacrifice to the god when one had been healed of a disease. The implication of Socrates’ dying words is that life is a disease and death is the cure. In death we are freed from all the temptations, suffering, and sorrow that accompany our physical, temporal existence and its instinctive drives; and the human soul, reason, is free to wander the realm of the “forms” of knowledge, i.e., real world of eternal and unchanging Being.
Before Socrates, this life and its sensuous experiences were what were real and meaningful. According to the Homeric worldview, when one dies, the soul moves on to Hades: the dank, dark, and dreary realm of the underworld. This isn’t regarded as punishment. It’s simply the next step after this life. In Homer’s Odyssey (book 11), Odysseus visits his deceased friends there, and the impression is that it’s a dreary and dull place to spend one’s time. This perspective, then, emphasizes the importance of the tangible realm of physical existence, and perhaps accounts for the Greeks’ appreciation of beauty in the sensible world. One should, in other words, strive to achieve and appreciate all that one can in the here and now, for all the good, natural, instinctive things of this life are fleeting. In death, one is condemned to dwell in darkness, with only the remembrance of one’s physical existence. Here too Socrates turns the traditional view on its head. The temporal, sensual experiences of this life are mere appearances: fleeting, momentary, and unreal. The real world is the one the souls enter into at death: the realm of the eternal, immutable forms of knowledge, which are the real foundations of the deceptive appearances of physical existence. Thus begins the inversion of values that would later develop into the cornerstone of the Christian worldview. This world is now seen as a temporary and transitory temptation for the evil employment of our instincts and the sinful enjoyment of the sensuous passions. In death, however, the virtuous individual is rewarded with the “real” and eternal pleasures of the spiritual existence.
The errors introduced by Socrates become the unquestioned assumptions for most philosophy that followed. When we consider the views of Kant or Hegel, for example, we find the same topsy-turvy world where the realm of sense experience and nature are seen as changeable “appearances,” while the conceptual notions of static being, substance, etc., are said to be the “realities.” The chapter titled “‘Reason’ in Philosophy” is essentially a criticism of those who make abstract Being the most real thing, and those who regard the realm of Becoming, of nature and change, as the most unreal and deceptive notion. (Nietzsche praises Heraclitus as the only ancient thinker not taken in by this flawed perspective.) Anticipating the views of later thinkers like G. E. Moore and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Nietzsche insists that philosophical notions such as Being, substance, etc., are really nothing more than confusions of language. We take nouns and substantive terms, which are features of language, and mistakenly impose them on the world as though they are real things. By understanding the nature of language and the motives behind most philosophical discourse, we can see that what has passed for claims about reality are merely misapplications and misconceptions grounded in our language.
Being is thought into and insinuated into everything as cause; from the concept “ego,” alone, can the concept “Being” proceed. At the beginning stands the tremendously fatal error of supposing the will to be something that actuates—a faculty. Now we know that it is only a word. (“‘Reason’ in Philosophy,” § 5)
Not unlike Hume before him, Nietzsche regards the “self,” or “ego,” as nothing more than an ever-bustling bundle of perceptions, sensations, memories, etc. The unity of the self eludes observation. Through our consistency of experience and the social need to distinguish ourselves, we create the useful fiction we call the “self” or the “ego.” We erroneously regard it as a static being, and we attribute to it the capacity to cause various actions and behaviors. We call this our “free will.” Finally, we spread these fictions into the world and mistakenly regard things as unitary substances, which underlie and cause their attributes and behaviors. This whole house of cards is built upon the idea of something answering to the word “self.” In fact, Nietzsche insists, there is no such thing as a self, as a substantial thing, or a free will. All of this is merely conceptual and linguistic misinterpretation of what we experience. “‘Reason in language!—oh what a deceptive old witch it has been! I fear we shall never be rid of God, so long as we still believe in grammar” (“‘Reason” in Philosophy,” § 5).
He concludes this part of Twilight with a succinct summary of the main theses he has been arguing for: (1) our sense experience of this world is all the justification needed to prove its reality; (2) the religious and philosophical talk of a “true world,” “Being,” etc., is nothing more than a contradiction of the real, natural world: “it is a moralo-optical delusion”; (3) the true motive for introducing another, better world than this one is merely to slander, belittle, and besmirch the natural world—a program of revenge provided by those not up to facing the real world, nature, and instincts; and (4) this tendency among theologians and philosophers is a symptom of weakness, and expresses “a symptom of degenerating life,” while “the artist,” the value-creator, understands that what those others call mere appearance is, in fact, reality—the only true world. Yet, this “tragic artist is no pessimist—he says Yes to everything questionable and terrible, he is Dionysian” (“‘Reason’ in Philosophy,” § 6).
In the –chapter that follows, “Morality as the Enemy of Nature,” Nietzsche draws the consequences of the previous two chapters. (Much of what he says here would be adapted in The Antichrist.) Given what he has already said, his first point is fairly obvious. Christian morality is the sworn enemy of our natural, healthy instincts. In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche had drawn a sharp distinction between what he called “master morality” and “slave morality.” Master morality, which was the morality of Homer’s heroes, treated the instincts and their natural expressions as healthy and honorable. One returned violence with violence, thus the psychological tensions of anger and revenge were given natural expression and essentially eliminated. For the master morality, there were no objective, eternal, “divine” standards of good and bad. Virtues such as individuality, personal accomplishment, pride, intelligence, and the enjoyment of sensual pleasures were regarded as virtuous from the individual perspective (or, perhaps from the common perspective of one’s noble compatriots). For them, a good action was one that the person chooses to do, succeeds at, and is recognized for; while a bad action was one that resulted in failure and shame. Vices included cowardice, lack of individual accomplishment, ignorance, and a denial or inhibition of one’s instinctive drives.
With the advent of democracy, the Socratic worldview, and Christianity, Western civilization experienced its first revaluation of values. What had been the vices of the master morality become the virtues of the slave morality: modesty, humility, ignorance, the “herd instinct,” i.e., the desire not to stand out from the crowd, and the loss of individuality. The masters’ virtues, conversely, become the slaves’ vices: pride, individuality (the sins of Lucifer), knowledge, and most of all, the instincts and the love of nature. And while the moral judgments of the masters were regarded as personal (or, at most, interpersonal) values, dependent upon the individuals’ choices, successes or failures, the slaves insist that values are universal, eternal, and unconditional. “Good” means the same for everyone in all times at all places, as does “evil” (which now replaces the masters’ more subjective “bad”).
But notice: the rules of the game have not changed, only the players. In master morality, the slave obeys for fear of being punished or for the hope of some reward from the master. The slave has to be told what and what not to do out of fear or hope. And the natural instincts are the enemy. If the worldly master strikes his slave, the slave’s natural, instinctive reaction would be to strike back. But this he or she cannot do. It defies both the social/moral standards, and the result would more than likely prove inconvenient for the slave. Instinctively, the slave feels the strong urge to return the insult, but is compelled to inhibit the action. As Freud would later note, such feelings of anger and revenge do not simply disappear. They become internalized, they fester and, as Nietzsche indicates, they become sublimated—they are expressed in some alternative fashion. The imagination creates a means of revenge that will not result in the slave’s further punishment. In slave morality, everyone is now regarded as a slave to a single master who dwells in the clouds, and whose punishments and rewards are most extreme and severe. Thus, in slave morality, the offended party not only believes he or she is ultimately avenged, but that there is a reward for not avenging one’s self. So when the Christian is struck, he turns the other cheek. Deep down, however, his instincts are gratified by the assumption that the attacker will suffer eternal torment in hell, while he, the humble forgiver, will be rewarded for his impotence and inaction.
With the advent of Christian morality and the reversal of the nobler virtues of the masters, Christianity declared war on everything associated with master morality. It ennobles what is feeble and weak, it condemns what is life-affirming and natural.
The early Church, as everyone knows, certainly did wage war against the “intelligent,” in favor of the “poor in spirit.” In these circumstances how could the passions be combated intelligently? The Church combats passion by means of excision of all kinds: its practice, its “remedy,” is castration…. But to attack the passions at their roots, means attacking life itself at its source: the method of the Church is hostile to life. (“Morality as the Enemy of Nature,” § 1)
Nietzsche insists that those saints and theologians who originality set the standards for the ideal human, the “good Christian,” were weak, resentful, misanthropes, whose own degeneracy and discomfort with nature and instincts are projected into the world as a model of morality for every human being. (“Truly these have been consistent moralists, they wish man to be different, i.e., virtuous; they wish him to be after their own image—that is to say sanctimonious humbugs” [Ibid., § 6].) Finding pleasure living in the natural world, actions grounded in the instincts, the desire to express one’s creative individuality, to separate oneself from “the herd”—all of these tendencies are, for Christian morality, the work of the devil. And they must, at all costs, be eliminated; the person’s soul must be “saved.” From this perspective, everyone must think alike, act alike, be like everyone else. Christianity’s primary motive is to destroy and totally eradicate any disagreement regarding its dictates: dictates that are regarded as ex cathedra truths—absolute and beyond dissention.
Nietzsche contrasts this ancient “idol” with the healthier, life-affirming “Dionysian attitude.” Here he suggests something that strikes many readers as quite surprising. While the Christian attitude seeks to totally annihilate and eliminate its adversaries, the Dionysian view finds profound value in its opponent. While Christianity insists that we should “love our neighbor,” the implication is that we should do so only insofar as our neighbor believes as we do. Nietzsche, however, insists that such love should extend, perhaps even more particularly, to those who do not share the insights of the more noble human type.
The spiritualization of sensuality is called love: it is a great triumph over Christianity. Another triumph is our spiritualization of hostility. It consists in the fact that we are beginning to realize very profoundly the value of having enemies…. In all ages the Church wished to annihilate its enemies: we, the immoralists and Antichrists, see our advantage in the survival of the Church…. A man is productive only insofar as he is rich in contrasted instincts; he can remain young only on condition that his soul does not begin to take things easy and to yearn for peace. Nothing has grown more alien to us than that old desire—the “peace of the soul,” which is the aim of Christianity. Nothing could make us less envious than the moral cow and the plump happiness of a clean conscience. (“Morality as the Enemy of Nature,” § 3)
The strong, life-affirming individual, like the Homeric hero, defines him- or herself by overcoming worthy adversaries or obstacles, through war and opposition. The Christian belief system is invaluable to such an individual, for it is, according to Nietzsche, a plethora of dangerous and erroneous views about the world, human nature, moral values, etc. Its long and insidious survival provides the higher human type many profound insights into the errors and degeneracy of the human, all too human condition. It is useful as a kind of negative barometer; a means for determining the truly good, productive, and honest virtues, by way of contrast.
Another reason for acknowledging the value of Christianity, including its long, protracted history of violence and socio-psychological damage to generations of people, is hinted at in the last section of this part.
The individual in his past and future is a piece of fate, one law the more, one necessity the more for all that is to come and is to be. To say to him “change thyself” is tantamount to saying that everything should change, even backwards as well. (“Morality as the Enemy of Nature,” § 6)
These simple statements refer to ideas developed in detail elsewhere (e.g., The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Ecce Homo)—ideas which Nietzsche regarded as his most important contributions to philosophy, and the most difficult notions to truly come to terms with. These are his doctrine of the eternal recurrence of the same, and its accompanying attitude he calls amor fati, the love of fate. The first suggests that everything that exists or happens does so necessarily. And in an infinite time, the existing thing or event has happened an infinite number of times in the past, and will come about again in precisely the same way an infinite number of times in the future. For those who are discomforted by the natural world and long for a “better world” with heavenly rewards, such a view is anathema to happiness. If, however, one is reconciled with the natural world and sees this life as the true reality, such a person must understand that everything that happens, both personally and historically, is a necessary component of the eternal cycle of recurrence. All the personal pains of one’s life, as well as the atrocities and errors of Christian civilization, must not merely be accepted. They must be loved. To affirm this life is to affirm everything that has happened and will happen. Such love is amor fati, the love of fate. So while some may wish to somehow change the damage brought about through the history of the Christian Church, or to abolish its existence in the present or the future, the strongest natures understand its necessary role in the ring of recurrence.
In the following chapter, “The Four Great Errors,” Nietzsche imitates Francis Bacon in describing the four great “idols” that have stood in the way of inductive knowledge. In Twilight, Nietzsche offers a brief but important examination of “The Four Great Errors” that have stunted, inhibited, and misled human development. The first of these is “the error of the confusion of cause and effect,” which he regards as the most “dangerous error … the intrinsic perversion of reason” (“The Four Great Errors,” § 1). It is said to be the oldest, but it is still with us in our conceptions of religion and morality. Both express imperatives (“do this!” or “don’t do that!”) which, when followed, are supposed to “cause” a person to have a virtuous character (the effect). Nietzsche insists that the situation here is, in fact, just the opposite of how it has been understood. It is the person’s character that “causes” the individual to regard the moral or religious imperatives as true and valuable guidelines (the effect). Thus, a degenerate character would be the cause of that person’s adoption of degenerate “virtues,” such as humility, modesty, etc. (the effect).
The second great error is what he calls, “the error of false causality.” The first error confuses what are, in fact, causes and effects. This one pretends to explain things in terms of a fictitious or mistaken cause. Traditionally, people have regarded three “inner facts of consciousness” as irrefutably given truths, upon which both religion and moral philosophy are founded. There is something called the “human will,” which causes all my various actions, behaviors, and thoughts. Secondly, in all conscious action the will is revealed as “motive.” Thus, if my hand itches, I am motivated to scratch it and I will to do so. Finally, there is the notion of consciousness as “spirit” or “ego,” which is a later extension of the other two notions. All moral philosophy, all Christian morality, are grounded in these “causes.” Without free will and motive, moral responsibility has no meaning. Unless, for example, I can freely choose to save a child from a burning building, motivated by my valuing human life, neither my action nor my character can be judged to be morally good and virtuous. Unless I can freely choose to accept or reject the doctrines of the Christian Church, I cannot be held accountable for my own salvation. Having, then, created these notions as constituents of our inner life, we then project them out into the world. The notion of substance is merely the externalized correlate of our idea of “ego”: the unknowable objective “cause” and support of its sensible properties. The idea of causation among objects is simply a restricted application of our conceptions of our inner motives and will. Ultimately, this whole fictitious belief of the spiritual causes in human activity is expanded into the cosmic conception of God, the ultimate spiritual cause, as the progenitor of the physical effect we call the universe. Philosophically, the issue here resembles René Descartes’ (1596–1650) mind/body interaction problem: how can one kind of substance, mental or material, be the cause of some effect in the other kind of substance, when these two kinds are, by definition, radically distinct and totally independent of one another? Nietzsche’s radical solution to this problem is to suggest that since mental substances, or spiritual causes, don’t exist, but are merely errors in our conceptual framework, the problem is really no problem at all. Thus, this issue, so important to the development of the rationalist philosophers, is comparable to the question regarding how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (assuming, of course, that angels dance). Nietzsche asks, where and what are these so-called “inner facts of consciousness”? They are certainly not available to consciousness. Contrary to the contentions of earlier philosophers and theologians, we have no sort of private access to such things. The best we can do is observe actual behavior. We can’t know “free will,” “motive,” or “ego,” the so-called spiritual causes, because there is simply nothing there to know.
The third great error is what he calls, “the error of imaginary causes.” Here Nietzsche offers an interesting and original account of the entire psychology of cause and effect. He suggests that our ever-present proclivity to think causally, to understand our experiences in terms of causes and effects, is not a rational process. Like Hume before him, Nietzsche regards our predisposition to understand experience in terms of causes and effects as a fundamental instinct. It is not learned behavior. It is a feature that is hard-wired into the cognitive activities of all sentient beings. His analysis of this feature rests on two claims: first, “any explanation is better than none at all”; and second, “the instinct of causality is conditioned and stimulated by the feeling of fear” (“The Four Great Errors,” § 5). The first claim is fairly obvious. For instance, if I hear a series of loud pops outside on the Fourth of July, I assume, without much reflection, that someone is setting off firecrackers. It would appear absurd, if someone asked me what was causing the popping noises, for me to respond, “I have no idea.” For every effect we encounter, we always formulate some explanation. And this process is grounded in memory. I can recall many past instances of such noises being caused by firecrackers. Thus, I assume that the present situation is like those I have experienced in the past. The second claim is grounded in the fact that our initial response to some effect stimulus is accompanied, at some level, by a feeling of fear or distress. So of all the possible explanations that come to mind, I naturally pick the one that is both consistent with the memories of my past experiences, and makes me feel less distressed, less fearful. The popping sounds could, in fact, be a gunfight. But such an unsettling explanation is dismissed in favor of the firecracker explanation since the latter is less disturbing.
The fourth and final obstacle to a reasonable and honest understanding of the human condition is what Nietzsche calls “the error of free-will”—“the most egregious theological trick that has ever existed for the purpose of making mankind ‘responsible’ in a theological manner—that is to say, to make mankind dependent upon theologians” (“The Four Great Errors,” § 7). The innocence of instinctive action, action that is not dependent upon objective reason or purpose, but rather on passion and the desire to express one’s power and individuality, loses its instinctive innocence when free will enters the picture.
The whole of ancient psychology, or the psychology of the will, is the outcome of the fact that its originators, who were the priests at the head of ancient communities, wanted to create for themselves a right to administer punishment—or the right for God to do so. Men were thought of as “free” in order that they might be judged and punished—in order that they might be held guilty: consequently every action had to be regarded as voluntary, and the origin of every action had to be imagined as lying in consciousness (in this way the most fundamentally fraudulent character of psychology was established as the very principle of psychology itself)…. Christianity is the metaphysics of the hangman. (“The Four Great Errors,” § 7)
Nietzsche concludes this part by describing the consequences of our recognizing and avoiding these four great errors:
What, then, alone, can our teaching be?—that no one gives man his qualities, neither God, society, his parents, his ancestors, nor himself….No one is responsible for the fact that he exists at all, that he is constituted as he is, and that he happens to be in certain circumstances….. The fatality of his being cannot be divorced from the fatality of all that which has been and will be…. We invented the concept “purpose”; in reality purpose is altogether lacking. One is necessary, one is a piece of fate, one belongs to the whole, one is in the whole…. But there is nothing outside the whole! The fact that no one shall any longer be made responsible, that the nature of existence may not be traced to a causa prima, that the world is an entity neither as a sensorium nor as a spirit—this alone is the great deliverance—thus alone is the innocence of Becoming restored…. The concept “God” has been the greatest objection to existence hitherto…. We deny God, we deny responsibility in God: thus alone do we save the world. (“The Four Great Errors,” § 8)
By exposing the roots of our mistakes and misconceptions of cause and effect, he has cleared the way for what he regards as a truer, more intellectually satisfying view of the ultimate nature of existence—his doctrines of the eternal recurrence and the “love of fate.”
In the next part of Twilight, “The ‘Improvers’ of Mankind,” Nietzsche begins with a passage that is as elegantly stated as it is philosophically significant.
You are aware of my demand upon philosophers, that they should take up a stand Beyond Good and Evil—that they should have the illusion of the moral judgment beneath them. This demand is the result of a point of view which I was the first to formulate: that there are no such things as moral facts. Moral judgment has this in common with the religious one, that it believes in realities which are not real. Morality is only an interpretation of certain phenomena: or, more strictly speaking, a misinterpretation of them. (§ 1)
When the madman in The Gay Science (§ 125) and Zarathustra in the prologue of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (§ 3) proclaimed that “God is dead,” they were, among other things, proclaiming the demise of all extrinsic, objective moral and religious values. What has passed as the most important human concerns, e.g., “good,” “evil,” “God,” “Devil,” “Heaven,” and “Hell,” are now to be regarded as nothing more than words and concepts invented by people who lacked both an understanding of existence in general, and insight into human nature in particular. Their hatred of what was natural and instinctive, healthy and productive, was infectious among the disenfranchised, the advocates of “slave morality.” These individuals lacked the capacity to distinguish between fact and fiction, between reality and wishful thinking. As slaves, independent thought or beliefs that differed from “the herd’s” were contrary to their way of thinking. They required a master to command them or condemn them. Thus, the so-called improvers of mankind, those who served as the overseers, whose job it was to keep the slaves in tow, sought to improve human beings by “taming” them, i.e., by denigrating and condemning human instincts and turning people into sickly servants of the supernal master. The individual was transformed into
a caricature of man, like an abortion: he had become a “sinner,” he was caged up, he had been imprisoned behind a host of appalling notions. He now lay there, sick, wretched, malevolent even toward himself: full of hate for the instincts of life, full of suspicion in regard to all that is still strong and happy. In short a “Christian”…. The Church understood this: it ruined man, it made him weak—but it laid claim to having “improved” him. (“The ‘Improvers’ of Mankind,” § 2)
In earlier works Nietzsche was often critical of the plight of both the political realities and the educational program of Germany (cf. Untimely Meditation I, 4–5; Beyond Good and Evil, Pt. 8). In the chapter of Twilight titled “Things the German Lack,” we see his final pronouncements regarding the country of his birth and its people. On the one hand, he attributes to the German spirit “an enormous store of inherited and acquitted capacity” of what he calls the “manly” virtues: good spirits and self-respect, dutifulness, industry, and perseverance. Now he suggests that these cultural characteristics have been dulled and misguided by the political influences of the “Iron Chancellor,” Bismarck. In a passage that would ring as true in 1938 as it did in 1888, he says the following:
The Germans—they were once called a people of thinkers: do they really think at all at present? Nowadays the Germans are bored by intellect, they mistrust intellect; politics have swallowed up all earnestness for really intellectual things—Deutschland, Deutschland über alles (“Germany, Germany above all”). I fear this was the deathblow to German philosophy. (“Things the Germans Lack,” § 1)
Owing to the fact that “this nation has deliberately stultified itself for almost a thousand years” on “the two great European narcotics, alcohol and Christianity,” as well as upon the more recent effects of “costive and constipating German music” (i.e., Wagner) (§ 2), it lags behind virtually every other European culture. But the primary cause of Germany’s intellectual retardation is to be found in its educational system. Nietzsche had long been a critic of Germany’s stultifying process of education, particularly of higher education. Back in Untimely Meditation III, he had blasted university education as a process that instills mediocrity and chastises original thought. Here, in his last detailed treatment of the problem, he offers a positive solution. The problem of the decline of German education is the decline in the abilities of the educators. Instead of the stolid, dogmatic “louts who, like ‘superior wet-nurses,’ are now thrust upon the youth of the land by public schools and universities,” what is required are “educators … who are themselves educated, superior and noble intellects, who can prove that they are thus qualified, that they are ripe and mellow products of culture” (§ 5). While Nietzsche had in earlier books made similar claims, here he actually tells us what such educators should do to produce truly educated students, which in turn will result in a revitalization of German culture: “people must learn to see; they must learn to think, and they must learn to speak and write: the object of all three of these pursuits is a noble culture” (§ 6).
As one might expect, each of these abilities has a special meaning for Nietzsche. Learning “to see” means to resist our natural tendency to make immediate judgments without fully investigating or understanding the subject. We must resist the temptation to pass unreflective judgments about things, to react in knee-jerk fashion to the stimulus of a new idea.
To learn to see—to accustom the eye to calmness, to patience, and to allow things to come up to it; to defer judgment, and to acquire the habit of approaching and grasping an individual case from all sides. This is the first preparatory schooling of intellectuality. One must not respond immediately to a stimulus; one must acquire a command of the obstructing and isolating instincts. (“Things the Germans Lack,” § 6)
“To learn” and “to speak and to write” involve essentially the same requirements. The stuffy, self-serious, sterile, and unimaginative procedures of education, with their emphases of rote memorization and dogmatic parroting, should be replaced with a more creative, original, less somber approach. The science of education should become a gay science:
Stiff awkwardness in intellectual attitudes, and the clumsy fist in grasping—these things are so essentially German…. For truth to tell, dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of all noble education: dancing with the feet, with ideas, with words, and, need I add that one must also be able to dance with pen—that one must learn how to write? But at this stage I should become utterly enigmatical to German readers. (“Things the Germans Lack,” § 7)
If Twilight of the Idols is something of a smorgasbord of Nietzsche’s later thought, then the next section, “Skirmishes in a War with the Age,” would be the potluck course. He begins with critical appraisals of various popular writers of his time. Most are bombasted for their implicit or explicit Christian values and their lack of any true style or originality. The only writers for whom Nietzsche shows any affection or affinity are Emerson, (who “possesses that kindly intellectual cheerfulness which deprecates overmuch seriousness”) (“Skirmishes,” § 13); Dostoyevsky (“the only psychologist from whom I had anything to learn”) (Ibid., § 45); and Goethe (“the last German whom I respect”) (Ibid., § 51).
Here Nietzsche also provides some interesting discussions that show how his views on the Dionysian and Apollinian impulses had changed over the years. In The Birth of Tragedy, these impulses were discussed more or less exclusively in the context of Greek tragedy and Wagner’s musical dramas. In Twilight, the Dionysian/Apollinian contrast is less pronounced. Both are complimentary aspects of the creative, life-affirming temperament, which is now contrasted with the “other-worldly” temperament that expresses a decline of the vital, creative energies. These discussions point to Nietzsche’s revaluation of opposing forces of life. Initially, the creative impulses were expressed in terms of the contrast between Dionysus (instinct) versus Apollo (reason). Now the opposition has shifted. The earlier contrast has become two aspects of a single power—the life-affirming, creative notion he calls the Dionysian attitude, which is now contrasted with the life-denying, weak, unhealthy attitude of the nihilist, the naysayer, the Christian. “Have I been understood?—Dionysus versus the Crucified” (Ecce Homo, IV, 9).
In the final chapter of Twilight, “Things I Owe to the Ancients,” Nietzsche, interestingly, attributes many features of his own writing style not to Greek authors, but rather to Roman writers. “I am not indebted to the Greeks for anything….. One cannot learn from the Greeks—their style is too strange….” (“Things I Owe to the Ancients,” § 2). He tells us that the two greatest influences on his writing style were the Roman epigrams of Sallust (86–34 B.C.E.), and the poetry of Horace (65–8 B.C.E.). As usual, Plato is treated with disdain. Not only is his philosophy a travesty, but
in regard to Plato I am a thorough sceptic, and have never been able to agree to the admiration of Plato the artist, which is traditional among scholars…. In my opinion Plato bungles all the forms of style pell-mell together, in this respect his is one of the first decadents of style…. For the Platonic dialogue—this revoltingly self-complacent and childish kind of dialectics—to exercise any charm over you, you must never have read any good French authors…. Plato is boring. In reality my distrust of Plato is fundamental. I find him so very much astray from all the deepest instincts of the Hellenes, so steeped in moral prejudices, so pre-existently Christian…. I would prefer to designate the whole phenomenon Plato with the hard word “superior bunkum”….. (“Things I Owe to the Ancients,” § 2)
Nietzsche concludes Twilight by indicating the full circle of his authorship back to the basic point of his first book, The Birth of Tragedy. However, what had been regarded as the fundamental psychological impulse of the Greek tragedians has now been transformed and revaluated as the fundamental power of all human existence:
The saying of Yea to life, including even its most strange and most terrible problems, the will to life rejoicing over its own inexhaustibleness in the sacrifice of its highest types—this is what I called Dionysian … to be far beyond terror and pity and to be the eternal lust of Becoming itself—that lust which also involves the lust of destruction. And with this I once more come into touch with the spot from which I once set out—the “Birth of Tragedy” was my first transvaluation of all values: with this I again take my stand upon the soil from out of which my will and my capacity spring—I, the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus—I the prophet of eternal recurrence. (“Things I Owe to the Ancient,” § 5)
In an important way Twilight of the Idols completes the cycle of Nietzsche’s authorship, a return to the issue with which he began—the Dionysian attitude—and a revaluation of revaluating. It is also an exposition of the two parts of human history that he intended to lay bare. On the one hand, there is his critical examination of the errors and misunderstandings that have infected the human condition for over two thousand years. There is Socrates’ perversion and inversion of traditional values, i.e., his denigration of human instincts, his coronation of reason, and his de-emphasis of the importance of this life and the world in favor of the “next” life of sweetness and light and eternal happiness. On the other hand, there is the second part of human history, which will follow from Nietzsche’s revaluation of all values, i.e., an exposure of the errors of the past, an examination of the negative effects of these errors in human history both for the psychology of the individual and the social maladies based upon them, and the suggestion of a new, more natural, more instinctive, more responsible and creative worldview that can become our future.
Dennis Sweet holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Iowa. He writes frequently on Kant, Heraclitus, and Nietzsche, and teaches philosophy and history at several colleges in Pittsburgh.
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