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Nietzsche: The Philosopher of the Present Age

No writer has grasped the spirit of the contemporary world better than Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). But like his madman in The Gay Science, Nietzsche has been widely mocked by many Catholics as crazy or sophomoric, fit for the rebellious teen and responsible for the horrors of the twentieth century. Many rush to refute him; few attempt to understand him. This is a mistake. In the following, I will argue why we ought to, at once, admire, sympathize, and abhor this insightful madman. For, in many respects, Nietzsche is the philosopher of the present age.

The first time I heard of Nietzsche was on a retreat. I was in the eighth grade, and a religious brother—a member of a religious order Nietszche would have probably had a field day with—delivered a talk on the culture of death. He mentioned Nietzsche but only had bad things to say. What he said about Nietzsche sparked my interest. After the retreat, I rushed to my town library to learn more about him, finding Bryan Magee’s The Story of Philosophy. I wanted to better understand the sources of myself and my culture.

It has been nearly twenty-two years since then, and my appreciation for Nietzsche in helping me do just that has only grown. Along the way, my concerns that playing with Nietzschean dynamite might kill me have been abated upon discovering that many of the Catholic luminaries I so cherish, like Hans Urs von Balthasar and his teacher Erich Przywara, share my enthusiasm for Nietzsche. They saw him as an eschatological prophet casting dynamite at decadent bourgeois Christianity, blowing up obstacles to true faith. And with Paul Tillich, they appreciated Nietzsche for unintentionally bringing Christians through the proclamation of the “death of God” to the “God beyond god” of Christianity. And while the horrors of the twentieth century and today’s anti-humanisms are rightly linked to Nietzsche’s philosophy, there are many things that we can appreciate about him.

While Nietzsche idolized the tough guy, he was a sensitive soul. And reading him helps one see his profundity and many sides. As many scholars have noted, there exist many Nietzsches, depending on what is emphasized in his corpus. One of my favorite portraits of Nietzsche is Rüdiger Safranski’s Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. Safranski gives us a sympathetic take on Nietzsche. He writes, “Although [Nietzsche] sought a very different outlook [strongman, machismo], he was a genius of the heart.”[1] Safranski presents Nietzsche as an artist who intimately felt the decrepit condition of his culture, trying to move beyond this with a new surge of life. For Nietzsche, suffering gives life meaning, making it bearable. Safranski’s biography wonderfully explores the many phases of Nietzsche’s intellectual life. His book is a good place to start before reading Nietzsche’s primary texts. Below is a brief biographical introduction.

Friedrich Nietzsche was born in 1844 in a small village near Saxony. He was the first of three children born to the Lutheran pastor Karl Ludwig Nietzsche and his wife, Franziska. He was brought up in Christian virtue, which he remembered as quite idyllic. However, his father died in 1849 when little Friedrich was five years old. The early death of his father affected him immensely. He fondly remembered his father as a magnanimus soul, someone who gave “the great Yes to life,” perhaps serving as a model for his proto-übermensch. A year later, his two-year-old brother, Ludwig Joseph, died. As we will see, Friedrich’s early familiarity with death must have influenced his stress on the impermanence of all things and Heraclitean becoming. Indeed, his early suffering and experience of the injustice of death went into his first philosophical essay, “On the Origin of Evil,” at the age of sixteen.

His mother hoped that he would follow in the footsteps of his father and become a pastor. In fact, his fellow pupils used to call him “the little pastor” because he could recite “biblical verses and spiritual songs” with such feeling that “you almost had to cry.”[2] But ultimately, the pastor’s path was the path he did not take. Nietzsche studied theology at Bonn for one semester but decided to study classical philology instead. Around this time, he stopped taking communion at church and focused on building his reputation as a preeminent philologist. He became one of the youngest philologists in Germany but quickly lost his scholarly reputation after the failure of his first book, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (1872). Nietzsche was unique and strange, misunderstood by his contemporaries. So what or who were his primary influences?

Surprisingly, young America. The American Transcendentalists had a big impact on the young Nietzsche. Inspired by reading Ralph Waldo Emerson (whose essays Nietzsche brought with him on most of his trips), Nietzsche wanted to pave his own path and create himself through harsh self-discipline. Over the course of ten years, he wrote eight autobiographical essays, seeking to live a life of greatness.[3] For Nietzsche, fashioning one’s own identity must be taken up by oneself and no other. This is the mark of the superior man, the übermensch, who, when read through the lens of Emerson, is very close to the ideal of the American self-made man. But even though Nietzsche loved America and mostly despised the Germans—especially the metaphysical German philosophers who he claimed were really just bad theologians—he must be understood in his German context.

Despite the concerns of his teacher, the young Nietzsche read the German Romantic Friedrich Hölderlin. Nietzsche was so taken by Hölderlin that he saw himself as his apostle. As a Romantic, Hölderlin’s poetry set forth a new mythos, a new gospel, that would re-enchant the cosmos after its leveling wrought by the technical, rationalistic bourgeois outlook that predominated in Germany at that time.[4] The early Nietzsche was a Romantic, often writing in amorphisms and story as a rejection of the decrepit rationalism he attributed to the dialectics of Socrates. Like the Romantics, he wanted to re-enchant the desacralized world and renew the culture. However, he eventually sought to “cure himself” of such hopes while still retaining much of their influence. Like Hölderlin, Nietzsche sensed that “the night of the gods” was overshadowing culture, atrophying the spirit and losing all sense of the numinous—a topic we will explore later. And like Hölderlin, Nietzsche would succumb to madness, only discovered and appreciated posthumously. Both would shape the German mind of the twentieth century in countless ways. Not so great, however, was the one Nietzsche first idolized but then repudiated: Richard Wagner.

Wagner was a megalomaniac who believed he was the composer of the dawning world. As he saw it, his music was written for the future and not the present. He was ahead of his times, and his music would serve as the catalyst for the renewal and renaissance of the nobility of man. Such an age needed to be heralded by a prophet, and Wagner found such a man in Nietzsche. And while their friendship would last for some time, with Nietzsche often visiting the Wagners at Trischben, Nietzsche eventually became disappointed with Wagner after the premier at Bayreuth. And while Nietzsche broke with Wagner, viewing him as a swindler and showman, he retained his belief and trust in the demoniac, pulsating life of Dionysius but not the Wagnerian religion centered around the altar of art. 1875 was a crisis year for Nietzsche, turning away from myth and art to the will to knowledge, which in the 1880s became the will to power (the movement of life itself).

Given our interest in culture, it is important to see how Nietzsche interpreted culture. This is perhaps the key for which he was most proud, helping him unlock the innermost secret of cultures.[5] In his first work, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche discovered an interplay of fundamental polar forces in culture that he identified as archetypes of two gods, Apollo and Dionysius. Apollo represented order, reason, and light; Dionysius stood for chaos, rapture, and the dark. But Dionysius was more primordial than Apollo, and it was the fate of all things tending too far to the Apollonian side to eventually break down into chthonic, violent energy—that is, the Dionysian life. Nietzsche saw this as the fate of the West, which in many ways played out during the twentieth century and is still playing out now.

Nietzsche only became more widely known after his descent into insanity in 1889 and death in 1900. This fate lent a ring of truth to his writings, as if “he had penetrated so deeply into the secret of existence that he lost his mind in the process.”[6] And publishers were right to see in this unfortunate end an opportunity to profit. Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth, recognized this as well. She quickly set up his archives and began to portray her brother as a militarist, German chauvinist. She was behind the Nietzsche many Nazis received, a party of which Elisabeth was a supporter. And while Nietzsche’s thought did contribute to much of the fascism of the twentieth century, there is much in his thought to falsify that image. He paved the way for psychoanalysis under Freud and Jung. Later pragmatists like Rorty read Nietzsche, delighting in his observation that ‘truth’ is an illusion useful for life.[7] His emphasis on creativity and the fusion of art and reality has influenced transhumanism, the sexual revolution, and the cult of the artist. His ‘will to power’ as the great affirmation of life influenced the vitalism or “philosophy of life,” Lebensphilosophie, that reignited Romanticism over and against rationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He rejected objectivity, claiming that there are only interpretations. And alert to power plays in almost everything, he influenced masters of suspicion like Derrida and Foucault. His attack on Christianity has even influenced popes, like Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est, helping us see the fullness of kenotic love. All in all, it is no exaggeration to say that Nietzsche is perhaps the most influential Western thinker of the last hundred years. I must have been onto something as a kid to sense in Nietzsche the way into understanding the spirit of my age.

Understandably, many Catholics are afraid of reading Nietzsche. He is dangerous. After all, he described himself as dynamite. But such dynamite is helpful for blowing up the false notions of God and the faith still active in the West and bringing back God’s significance. His diagnosis of the “last men” who only seek preservation and safety, taking no risks in life, might prod us to seek risk and nobility.

Unlike many contemporary atheists, Nietzsche understood the consequences of his atheism. He saw that the death of God changes everything, perceiving that the West has already lost the religious sense (“wiping clean the horizon”) and that in its theism were the seeds of atheism. This was the case despite the widespread profession of belief and relatively full churches during his day. “The Parable of the Madman” in The Gay Science (paragraph 125) and Thus Spake Zarathustra is where Nietzsche put his finger on the paradoxical coincidence of religion and atheism. In this parable, a madman goes into the marketplace crying, “I seek God! I seek God!”, only to be met with mockery and laughter, to which he responds, “Where is God? I’ll tell you! We have killed him—you and I!” But the crowds look at him disconcertingly. He perceives that he has come too early and that this tremendous event is still on its way when men will recognize that they themselves have killed God and that without God there is literally no foundation for anything. Catholic theologians like David L. Schindler believed this parable was very relevant to America and its religiosity. In his “‘The Religious Sense’ and American Culture,” Schindler wrote, “The modern death of God is not merely about God’s cultural disappearance, as if the content of belief in God, or the idea of God, remains essentially healthy, and only the practice of religion is unsatisfactory . . . for it is the idea of God itself—in this sense God himself—that has become unbelieveable.”[8] The God that many of us believe in is external to the world, only extrinsically related to this world or there only when we need him. Such a God is not infinite transcendence and at the same time interior intimo meo (Augustine)—more intimate to me than I am to myself. Nietzsche’s proclamation of the ‘death of God’ destroys the idol that blocks us from opening ourselves to the ‘God beyond god’ who has to do with everything.

But we do not want this, as we are content to be religious seculars or what Christian Smith calls “moral therapeutic deists.” Insofar as Nietzsche kills such a god, Christians can thank him. But we must learn how to suffer, for the disappearance of God’s significance is already upon us. The “tremendous event” has arrived. With the saints, we must join ourselves to Christ and his cry of dereliction on the cross. For it is in the God beyond the death of God that we find resurrection.

[1] Rüdiger Safranski, Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. Translated by Shelley Frisch (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002), 167. [2] Safranski, 352. [3] Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (London: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 6. [4] Safranski, 88. [5] Safranski, 66. [6] Safranski, 317. [7] Safranski, 321. [8] David L. Schindler, “‘The Religious Sense’ and American Culture,” Communio: International Catholic Review Winter 1998: 683.


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