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Was Nietzsche Misunderstood?

December 16, 2018     Time: 24:16
Was Nietzsche Misunderstood?


Some think that Friedrich Nietzsche got a bad rap. Did he really view life as meaningless?

KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, we have profiled some high-profile philosophers. Friedrich Nietzsche, according to this blogger, gets a bad rap; that he's often associated with meaninglessness and despair and downright insanity. Do you think that's true? Do you think he gets a bad rap?

DR. CRAIG: I have to say that I'm not a Nietzsche scholar. Our listeners need to understand that there are some scholars who devote their entire careers to the study of the thought of just one figure – one man. And there are Nietzsche scholars who work entirely on his literary corpus. And I'm not one of those. So while I have an acquaintance with Nietzsche's work, I'm quite open to the idea that he's been misunderstood or misrepresented and to learn from these scholars, though I must say as I looked at this blog that is before us I’m not convinced that the case is made here that Nietzsche has been so grossly misunderstood.

KEVIN HARRIS: This is from Zat Rana from the Medium blog: “Friedrich Nietzsche: Why Life Isn't Meaningless.”[1] He starts it out:

In 1900, one of the most profound thinkers of his day was buried in a small town in Germany.

He had been sick for over a decade before his death as a side effect of a mental breakdown. Fortunately, in the years before that, he sealed his legacy with an impressive library of work.

That’s rather sad there. He had a mental breakdown?

DR. CRAIG: He went insane, frankly. He probably had syphilis, and the last ten years of his life he was a lunatic. You already see the eruption of mental breakdown in some of his later work which is just ranting and angry and vituperative. So he is a tragic figure in that sense.

KEVIN HARRIS: The blog continues:

Friedrich Nietzsche is a name that evokes passion even today. His writing touched on almost every aspect of the human condition . . .

The connotation that the average person associates with his name is one of nihilism, or meaninglessness. His often repeated phrase “God is dead” has consistently been taken out of context, and many of his ideas have been negatively reframed by second-hand sources.

DR. CRAIG: This is what will interest me as we go through this blog. How does Zat Rana reinterpret Nietzsche's story of the mad man who comes proclaiming the death of God and says as a result of that that there is no up or down, there are no absolutes because God is dead and we've killed him, he says. So I want to see how it is that this author-blogger thinks that Nietzsche's proclamation of the death of God and the seeming moral nihilism that results from that is to be avoided.

KEVIN HARRIS: The blogger says:

The truth is that Nietzsche’s real concern was to define a framework for meaning in a world that was seeing a trending decline in religion. He was actually aggressively against nihilism.

. . . it’s a shame that much of Nietzsche’s work has remained elusive to the general public.

Then he goes into some of his ideologies here – that is, the will to power. That's what the common person usually associated with Nietzsche – God is dead, nihilism, and the will to power. What is your understanding of the will to power?

DR. CRAIG: As I understand it, it's a matter of taking control of your own life and being a sort of self-made man – not allowing others or traditional value systems to shape your existence. For that reason, Nietzsche hated Christianity passionately and thought it produced weak people, spineless people. The will to power was an exhortation to seize the reins yourself and to take mastery of your own fate.

KEVIN HARRIS: The blogger says,

In psychotherapy, three schools of thought dominate. Will to pleasure, which is inspired by the beliefs of Sigmund Freud. Will to meaning, which stands on the work of Viktor Frankl. Will to power, which was championed by Alfred Adler, but initially introduced by Nietzsche.

The will to power was central to much of Nietzsche’s work, and it evolved over time.

That said, the meaning behind the phrase differs from the initial image that it paints in the mind. He says,

To Nietzsche, power had a broad definition that involved a sense of mastery over oneself, the environment, and our relationships. He believed that this is primarily what dictates our behavior, and to live meaningfully is to align this will to power with actions and intentions.

Pausing there, you hear a lot about intentionality today. That's one of the phrases – do everything intentionally. He says,

Many people immediately feel discomfort with this idea, especially as it relates to other people because they automatically associate power with politics, war, and oppression.

That’s not the only way to look at it. Increasing power over yourself can be about controlling emotions. Increasing power over the environment may be about opportunity and optionality. An increase in power over others is more often a product of kindness than it is violence.


DR. CRAIG: Yes, this troubled me when I saw this paragraph. The author – the blogger – says, You can look at the will to power this way – increasing power of yourself can be about controlling your own emotions. Yeah, it could be about that. I'm sure Nietzsche would endorse the idea that you're not to be simply led by your emotions but you be the master of them yourself. Increasing power over the environment – that's the things around you and others – this can be, or may be, about opportunity and optionality. Well, yeah, it could be. But it also could be about dominating the situation, vanquishing your competitors, a sort of Donald Trump-esque attitude toward those who are against you. An increase in power over others, the blogger says, “is more often a product of kindness than violence.” Maybe sometimes kindness might be a way to manipulate others to get them to do what you want, but if violence is called for, if ruthlessness is called for, that would also be endorsed by Nietzsche. So I think we have here a very subjective spin on Nietzsche by someone who wants badly the will to power to be something that can be benevolent. But it need not be so.

KEVIN HARRIS: The blogger continues,

The will to power exists in our behavioral patterns in one way or another, but the way that it manifests depends on the choices we make and the things that we choose to value.

The degree to which your will to power hurts or benefits you or the people around you depends on the context within which you frame it. Luckily, that’s entirely up to you.

DR. CRAIG: Exactly! It's up to you. It's the things that you choose to value. So this to me implies the very sort of moral relativism that Zat Rana wants to avoid and claim that Nietzsche doesn't endorse. It seems to me that right here Rana affirms it – the will to power will manifest itself depending upon your personal choices. What do you want to value? It's entirely up to you. And that just is subjectivism and moral relativism.

KEVIN HARRIS: It says nothing about what you ought to value.

DR. CRAIG: Exactly. Or what you ought to choose. It's just up to you and your will to be the master of your own fate. So this seems to be a troubling return to the typical interpretation of Nietzsche.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says the concept of the “Superman” “is one of the most famous and most misunderstood of Nietzsche’s ideas.”

DR. CRAIG: Yes, this is the Übermensch, sometimes translated very literally as “Overman” but “Superman” would be a good interpretation, too.


It was misused by the Nazis during the Second World War to further their own agenda, and given that the word roughly translates to “Superman,” it’s still painted in a poor light.

A more accurate translation has been suggested to be self-overcoming or self-mastering.

DR. CRAIG: It is correct that we shouldn't think of the Übermensch as a super race like the Aryan race which sought to then remove from the German race any ethnicity from Jews or gypsies. It's not a racial idea. But it is an idea of, as I say, the sort of self-made man – the person who is in complete control of himself and therefore masters his own fate and achieves his own destiny going forward.


While the term is introduced only once in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, it’s essentially what the entire book was written about. To Nietzsche, the Übermensch was an ideal end for people to strive towards, and to get there, we would first have to overcome and master our current self.

The blogger then says – and this is the second time he said this:

In a world losing its connection to God and religion, he saw a need for us to create our own values to live meaningfully.

DR. CRAIG: And there you have this again. The need to create your own values. You cannot derive your moral values from God. Nietzsche despised the Christian religion. He thought Jesus was weak and effeminate and despised the ethic of loving your neighbor as yourself such as Jesus taught. For Nietzsche, each person had to be the master of his own fate and create his own set of values that he wanted to live by.

KEVIN HARRIS: I would be interested in looking at the history here. During Nietzsche’s time, was there a decline in religion in Germany?

DR. CRAIG: Sure. This was in the late 19th century, and it's certainly very true that with the advance of the Enlightenment and German deism and German rationalism that, yes, religion was under assault and in eclipse.


. . . he saw a need for us to create our own values to live meaningfully. But to do that, we would first need to envision a better and more advanced being than our current selves as to give us a significant aim.

There is still debate about whether or not Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch was referring to a singular ideal for the individual or a collective goal in the future for humanity as a whole.

What do you think about that?

DR. CRAIG: I don’t know. I've always taken it to be something that the individuals strive for. I think Friedrich Nietzsche himself wanted desperately to be an Übermensch. He recognized that he wasn't. In fact, Frederick Copleston, in his History of Philosophy in the section on Nietzsche, says that the Übermensch is everything that poor, ill, frail Professor Dr. Friedrich Nietzsche was not. It was the ideal that Nietzsche desperately wanted but never achieved.

KEVIN HARRIS: The blogger says,

It can also be interpreted subjectively. [This image that you have; this being that is higher than you.] For a musician, this may mean self-overcoming their own doubt to strive towards the ideal of a fearless artist. . . .

Either way, it boils down to there being an image towards which it’s worth striving. An image that motivates the values we hold and the context in which we frame our will to power.

DR. CRAIG: But the image doesn't simply motivate the values you hold. The image is created by the values you hold. Right? Whether you aspire to be an Adolf Hitler or a great statesman like Winston Churchill is going to depend on what sort of values you choose to embrace, and that's up to you. So, again, Zat Rana is trying to give a very sympathetic interpretation, for example the musician who chooses to overcome his doubts. But that's purely your personal preference. There isn't any sort of objective guideline here.

KEVIN HARRIS: Doesn’t it speak volumes that Nietzsche did not see this model in Jesus?

DR. CRAIG: I think it's strange – isn't it? – that he despised Jesus and what he stood for because I think Jesus was so courageous, so masculine and strong, that in a sense Jesus was an Übermensch. He was not a weak, cowardly person.

KEVIN HARRIS: The vast majority of philosophers and individuals would say that. Nietzsche is really against the grain here. Well, like he said here: it's subjective. The blogger continues,

The idea of self-overcoming is less about a sudden change than it is about an ongoing personal transformation. The point is to give the journey of evolution a form of meaning.

DR. CRAIG: Let me just say a word here that this phrase that Zat Rana likes to use here about self-overcoming can be misleading. It's not self-overcoming in the way that in Christianity we want to overcome and conquer selfish desires and to live for God and to, in a sense, take up our cross daily and deny ourselves. Here the idea of self-overcoming means overcoming your weaknesses, overcoming those things that hinder you from doing and being all that you want to be. This is all about self-actualization and self-mastery in that sense. It's not about self-denial and living for God and living for others.


Many people have goals and ideas for success that they envision, but they seldom have an improved identity that they look to evolve into. The latter may just be more important.

DR. CRAIG: And that brings to mind the Christian ideal of Christ – that we are being transformed from one degree of glory into another as we are conformed to the image of Christ. He is the ideal that we aspire toward.

KEVIN HARRIS: The blogger continues,

The Affirmation of Suffering

Sooner or later, every philosopher stumbles onto the problem of suffering. We all face pain over the course of our lives because it’s nature’s way of telling us that something is wrong.

At times, this is caused by physical damage to our bodies, which is understandable. If something is hurt, we want to know about it, and a feeling of pain forces us to react.

Much of the time, and more frustratingly, however, it’s a product of how we interpret the events in our life. . . .

Arthur Schopenhauer, one of the big influences on Nietzsche, had a very pessimistic view of human life precisely for this reason. He couldn’t find a logical link between meaning and the adverse effects of suffering, and he believed that we were doomed to the human condition.

That influenced Nietzsche according to this blogger. Schopenhauer?

DR. CRAIG: That's what Zat Rana says, and it's correct that Schopenhauer had a kind of “cosmic pessimism,” as I call it. As an atheist, he truly saw that there was no meaning to human existence and that all was doomed to end in death and apparently saw no value in suffering.

KEVIN HARRIS: The blogger continues,

Nietzsche, however, saw things differently. He liked to point out that the only problem with suffering is that we automatically label it as bad. We see it as something to avoid even though the rational function of pain is to make us stronger. It’s actually good for us.

DR. CRAIG: This reminds me of the aphorism “what does not kill me makes me stronger.” That's a sort of Nietzschian idea. I think there is truth in this from a Christian perspective. We know that through suffering God hones our character. James tells us to rejoice when we go through various trials because bearing these trials and tests can produce endurance and make us stronger. But it would be naive to think that all suffering has that sort of effect. Some suffering is debilitating and crushing. Mental illness, for example in particular, is not something from which the individual himself seems to improve. So this is a rather rosy view of suffering, I think.

KEVIN HARRIS: This is how the blog wraps up:

All You Need to Know

Whether you’re religious or not, it’s worth comprehending the different frameworks that humanity has developed to understand and derive meaning out of their place in the world.

DR. CRAIG: This troubled me. This is all we need to know? That's the way Zat Rana summarizes it: all you need to know. What about the death of God that played such a crucial role in Nietzsche’s thought. He was not a theist. He thought that God does not exist. And what about his critique of Christianity and his rejection of Christian values as weak and inimical to human flourishing? She just passes over all of this and says nothing about those negative critical views of Nietzsche and how that impacts his philosophy. I don't think you can interpret the rest of Nietzsche's philosophy while ignoring those elements as Rana does.


In the last 200 years, there is perhaps no one whose philosophy has been as influential as Friedrich Nietzsche. Although misunderstood, he has a lot to teach us.

A world devoid of meaning of any kind is quite a dull one indeed. Few people have found extended joy and fulfillment in refusing to establish their own narrative into a larger one.

DR. CRAIG: Here this is talking about subjective meaning in life. In order to find joy and fulfillment you need to contextualize your narrative (your life, meaning) inside a larger one, she says. I remember Richard Nixon once said that the way in which he found meaning to his career as a politician and his life was by seeking for peace in the world. Remember this was at the time of the Cold War, and so Nixon wanted to do all that he could to achieve world peace. And by contextualizing his life within this larger story – this larger narrative – it gave him a sense of meaning in life. But this is wholly subjective. This has nothing to say about whether or not there really is an objective meaning of life. Why does it matter if world peace is achieved? Everyone's going to die anyway in the heat death of the universe. It makes absolutely no difference in the end whether world peace is achieved. So while this prescription may be a good one for finding a subjective sense of joy and fulfillment in life, it really doesn't do anything to ward off the nihilism that Zat Rana aspired to address at the beginning of this blog.

KEVIN HARRIS: Again, we're at the is-ought problem, aren't we? What ought to be our intent?

DR. CRAIG: Yeah. Hitler lived life with intent and was inspired by Nietzsche. He found comfort in different things, too. How is that a false application of his philosophy?[2]


[2]           Total Running Time: 24:16 (Copyright © 2018 William Lane Craig)