Why I Am So Wise was our first blast through Friedrich Nietzsche’s canon. The German genius was so stunningly accomplished on an intellectual level over many cultural forms.
And he was particularly explosive in these two works. They’re both a rather savage, contemptuous attack on the popular ideas of his day – namely religion.
Written in 1888, these represent Nietzsche’s final works before his descent into madness.
Twilight of the Idols
Nietzsche wrote this in only a week – it was first published in 1889.
In verbally abusive fashion the great philosopher really goes off on one. Particularly towards Socrates, whom Nietzsche labels as ugly as part of his attack – for some silly reason.
But his assault, which he chronicles at the start in the chapter The Problems of Socrates, are in keeper with an open outlook on life. Something that Albert Camus would later champion in The Myth of Sisyphus.
Nietzsche argues that history is overrun with learned philosophers sharing the belief that life is pointless. He suggests this belief highlights a society in decline.
He feels that the value of life is inexplicable – you can’t estimate it. And by wasting your time doing so, you’re just highlighting whether you’re a misery guts or someone who’s life-affirming.
He’s in explosive form from that moment on. Provocative to the extreme, he must have outraged religious circles with this one. We can imagine him hunched over his desk working away, wild beams of imagination firing off in that genius mind.
Twilight of the Idols, you could argue, is about the meaning of life. There’s an early existential leaning here, as he promotes a higher understanding of moral conduct.
He has an empirical leaning (knowledge comes from sensory experience), directing all the ire he can at religion.
This comes across particularly in The Four Great Errors (which someone smarter than us explains in the above video), before leading him to assault the German population of his day due to the lack of cultural sophistication.
Nietzsche was in decline, mentally. Did that contribute to the outspoken excellence of his last works?
His intellect here is unhinged, if not a tad unstable, going around assaulting everything with remarkable insight. And over a hundred years later, it makes the book a fascinating read about his entire philosophy.
Although written in 1888, it wasn’t until 1895 that this work became available.
As you can imagine with a title like that, it was controversial. In an earnest foreword, Nietzsche explains:
"This book belongs to the very few. Perhaps none of them is even living yet ... The conditions under which one understands me and then necessarily understands - I know them all too well. One must be honest in intellectual matters to the point of harshness to so much as endure my seriousness, my passion. One must be accustomed to living on mountains - to seeing the wretched ephermeral chatter of politics and national egoism beneath one. One must have become indifferent, one must ever ask whether truth is useful or a fatality...."
As the reader, then, you have to be above politics and nationalism. In 2019, both are causing widespread damage – along with capitalism and religion, we have an unholy foursome of apocalyptic potential.
His work isn’t a Richard Dawkins styled God Delusion look on illogicality, but more Nietzsche’s belief that Christianity was (approaching the 20th century) corrupt. It had failed to uphold its principles and was now in a deleterious state of decline.
He hated the concept of a “religion of peace”, too, considering a sense of pity an incredible weakness.
"[It] multiplies misery and conserves all that is miserable, and is thus a prime instrument of the advancement of decadence: pity persuades men to nothingness! Of course, one does not say 'nothingness.' One says 'the Beyond' or 'God' or ' true life' or 'Nirvana,' 'salvation,' 'redemption,' 'blessedness.' Schopenhauer was hostile to life: therefore pity became a virtue for him."
There he refers to Arthur Schopenhaur (1788-1860), another German philosopher steeped in philosophical pessimism.
Now for some people at this, Nietzsche has lost his mind and is just ranting wildly. But there are some prescient and ever-important statements he makes in The Anti-Christ.
His love for science shines through, making it clear he sees the future in detailed and analytical research, modesty, and understanding humans aren’t above other animals.
And by introducing his “will to power” concept, he was able to define bad, good; happiness. To some extent, anyway, as he didn’t fully define his vision in this work.
In January 1889 Nietzsche had a mental breakdown. He actually caused a public disturbance in Turin – apparently, he was protecting a horse that was receiving a flogging, then collapsed to the floor.
It’s unclear if that’s true, but it did signal the beginning of a decade long decline into madness for him. That ended with two strokes in 1898 and 1899, bringing about the sudden end for the great man in 1900 aged only 55.