As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, I had the great pleasure of taking a seminar with perhaps the greatest female Nietzsche scholar in the United States: Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen. Her bombshell of a book, “American Nietzsche,” won her a host of awards. In her research, Ratner-Rosenhagen demonstrates that Nietzsche’s ideas were not only received by popular American culture, but that the Eccentric German was very influence by certain American thinkers, particularly Emerson (R-R draws attention to Emerson’s “Over-Soul” in comparison to Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch”). How funny to think that one of the most “European” of thinkers might this whole time be a disguised Americanist!
What, exactly, can we learn from this wild, idiosyncratic writer? To begin, Nietzsche was a 19th century scholar of Classics (ancient Greek & Latin), the youngest-ever tenured professor at the University of Basil, at only 23. After a series of health problems, he retired in his 30s, and spent the rest of his adult life living out of a suitcase and writing a series of eccentric books. Nietzsche is very much a philosopher, but unlike most English-language philosophy, Nietzsche’s work was poetic, unsystematic, allusive, and aphoristic. He is critical of Religion, but also damning of the Enlightenment Project: long before Freud, he posited that we are motivated by a Will-to-Power, and despite our best efforts, we are not compelled by reason, but by our deep-seated, unconscious minds.
Thus, unlike Kant or the Utilitarians (like Jeremy Bentham or JS Mill), Nietzsche scoffed at the idea that morality was a product of reason, just as much as he found it unlikely that morality had anything to do with God. Instead, Nietzsche would argue for “A Transvaluation of Values,” that is, the act of a person creating values for their life was, ultimately, more important than what those values were in particular. There is more to be said about Nietzsche’s ideas about the Ubermensch and the Will-to-Power, but I find his notion of the Eternal Return to be the most powerful idea for a discussion of ethics.
As a trained Classist, Nietzsche believed there was a great deal of wisdom from the Greeks that was lost with the introduction of Christianity to Europe. One of those things is the notion of cyclical time: Judaism, and later Christianity, distinguish themselves from a great number of pagan faiths by positing that time is linear. There is a beginning, a journey, progress, and an eschaton (an end-point). The Jews speak of “The World to Come,” the Christians look to the Second-Coming of Jesus Christ, the Greeks believed in Fate. There was nothing we could do to escape one’s fate, and in time, everything would repeat again. One had to accept one’s fate, there was little else you could do.
Nietzsche took this very seriously, and proposed a question, not a hypothesis, but a serious matter to ask yourself: Suppose a demon told you that, just as how you have lived your life, so will you live it again, in repetition, for all eternity. After all, if the universe is eternal, and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, than it seems likely that everything we have experienced will happen again. Does this fill you with joy or dread? If ethics is a conversation about how we ought to live, isn’t this the ultimate question? Even if there is no “Moral Lawgiver” or objective morality, the idea of an Eternal Reoccurrence forces me to consider why I do everything I do. Can I accept my fate?
Perhaps then, the only real agency we have in life is in how we accept the circumstances of our blind fate; this is the only moral test to speak of.