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Summary Article: Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844-1900)
from Encyclopedia of Time: Science, Philosophy, Theology, & Culture

Friedrich Nietzsche has emerged as perhaps the most influential thinker of the recent past. To a significant degree, this is due to the fact that he took time seriously in terms of both cosmology and ethics. Nietzsche offered a dynamic world-view that rejected the entrenched Aristotelian philosophy and Thomistic theology of Western civilization. His provocative writings contained scathing criticisms of modern European culture, particularly its religious beliefs and social morals (all decadent values, as he saw them).

Nietzsche spent his formative years in Rocken and Naumburg, Germany, where he developed a lasting interest in music and literature. At universities, his academic concerns shifted from classical philology to ancient philosophy. He became fascinated with the early culture of Greece, especially the fundamental idea of Heraclitus, which maintained the cyclical flux of all reality. Furthermore, Nietzsche stressed the necessary value of feelings and emotions (over the use of reason) for human creativity and fulfillment. His own emerging ideas were greatly influenced by the seminal writings of the philosophers Ludwig Feuerbach and Arthur Schopenhauer.

After his studies at Bonn and Leipzig, Nietzsche became a professor at the University of Basel, Switzerland. Due to chronic illnesses, he left the university after 10 years and became a solitary wanderer in the mountains of southern Europe. The following years gave the philosopher free time to rigorously reflect on the place of our species within both Earth history and sociocultural development. He wrote a series of ingenious books, his masterpiece being the four-part poetic work Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-1885).

Over time, Nietzsche wrote blistering criticisms of Christianity that dismissed all the basic beliefs of traditional theism. He boldly proclaimed that “God is dead!”—guaranteeing himself a permanent place in Western thought. He remained an unabashed atheist his entire life.

It was Charles Darwin the scientist who awoke Friedrich Nietzsche the philosopher from his dogmatic slumber. Although he benefited from reading Darwin's writings on evolution, Nietzsche's own interpretation of organic evolution offered startling philosophical speculations that were far beyond the views of his scientific naturalist contemporaries. The Darwinian struggle for survival (existence) became the Nietzschean struggle for power (creativity). The iconoclastic Nietzsche also called for a rigorous réévaluation of all values, because he saw religion, democracy, communism, and utilitarianism promoting values that were reducing human beings to a collective mediocrity. Consequently, he stressed the value of those superior individuals who are unencumbered by the vacuous ideas and false beliefs of the inferior masses.

One of Nietzsche's most important ideas, that of eternal return, is the theory that there is infinite time and a finite number of events, and eventually all events will recur again and again.

For Nietzsche, dynamic reality is essentially the will to power. As such, all the objects of this evolving universe are composed of vital energy as units of force. This is a strictly naturalistic stance that gives no credence to philosophical idealism or theological spiritualism. Throughout time, this will to power continuously creates all those objects that fill this evolving universe. If a steadfast observer with a high-powered telescope had witnessed, over billions of years, organic evolution on Earth from the surface of our moon (the process rapidly accelerated like a time-lapse film), then he or she would have experienced life forms exploding into an astonishing diversity of plant and animal species: One-celled organisms are followed by multicellular life forms, invertebrates precede vertebrates, and fossil apes give rise to human beings. Briefly, the creating universe includes creative evolution.

In terms of organic evolution, Nietzsche held that the human animal is a temporary link between the fossil apes of the remote past and the overbeings who will emerge from our species in the distant future. Moreover, in the creative sweep of biological history, he claimed that the overbeing to come will be as advanced beyond our species as the human animal of today is advanced beyond the worm! Quintessentially, this incredible progress will be made in terms of intellectual development (rather than merely temporal changes in physical characteristics). As a result, Nietzsche concluded that the overbeings to come are the meaning, purpose, aim, and goal of organic evolution on earth. These forthcoming noble beings will devote their superior intellect to creating artistic works and new values.

In early August 1881, while walking along the lake of Silvaplana near Sils-Maria in Switzerland (“6000 feet beyond man and time”), Nietzsche came upon a huge pyramid-shaped boulder. In a flash of intuition, he grasped a provocative perspective. This incident caused him to reflect upon time and, consequendy, to develop his colossal idea of the eternal recurrence of this same universe. The resultant awesome temporal perspective that now occurred to him justified (so he thought) his philosophy of overcoming; the struggle for existence is worthwhile if one's personal life somehow continues to exist throughout time in this material reality. Nietzsche was delirious with joy over his immortality-granting idea. He even contemplated studying the natural sciences in order to empirically demonstrate the scientific truth of eternal recurrence.

Nietzsche argued that cosmic time is eternal, while cosmic space is finite. Moreover, he held that there is only a finite amount of matter and energy in this universe. Therefore, only a finite sequence of objects and events may take place in a cosmic cycle. But if time is eternal, then this finite cosmic cycle will repeat itself again and again. In fact, Nietzsche argued that this identical cosmic cycle has repeated itself an infinite number of times in the past, and it will repeat itself an infinite number of times in the future. Thus, material reality is the eternal recurrence of this identical universe, with no progressive evolution from cycle to cycle.

If true, then the ramifications of this cosmology are staggering for human existence. In general, it meant that everything that has ever existed will appear again in the same finite sequence throughout eternal time. In particular, it means that Nietzsche will never pass out of existence forever, since he will eternally return as the same individual living the exact life in every detail in each finite cycle. It also embraced the evolution of morality from the premorality of fossil apes to the metamorality of the future overbeings yet to emerge. In short, for our species today, eternal recurrence challenges one to seriously consider both the choices one makes and the values one holds.

Nietzsche's pervasive “Yes!” to dynamic reality, and therefore to cosmic time, is an affirmation of life with far-reaching implications for ethics, morals, and values beyond good and evil. It commands that every choice a person makes is a decision for eternity. In short, once is forever! Because an individual has no knowledge of his or her previous life, it is as if one is free to make choices, but this freedom is, in fact, an illusion. Moreover, each moment of existence has eternal value in this universal wheel of time.

Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that he wrote in blood and philosophized with a hammer. His this-worldly stance repudiated the human, all too human ideas and moralities of common life. In his dynamic viewpoint, neither species nor values are fixed in nature. Nietzsche offered an astounding interpretation of time and human existence. His optimistic philosophy is ultimately grounded in a cosmic perspective that teaches the eternal recurrence of this same universe. He held that time is an endless series of finite cycles, with each cycle being absolutely identical to all the other cycles. His extraordinary vision of cosmic time remains both a challenging and an essential frame of reference for scientists, philosophers, and theologians.

See also

Cosmology, Cyclic, Eternal Recurrence, Ethics, Evolution, Organic, Feuerbach, Ludwig, Heraclitus, Nietzsche and Heraclitus, Presocratic Age, Schopenhauer, Arthur, Time, Cyclical, Values and Time, Wagner, Richard


  • Klossowski, P. ( (1997).). Nietzsche and the vicious circle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Köhler, J. ( (2002).). Zarathustra's secret: The interior life of Friedrich Nietzsche. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Nietzsche, F. ( (1993).). Thus spake Zarathustra (H. J., Ed., T., Trans.). Amherst, NY: Prometheus. (Original work published 1883-1885).
  • Pearson, K. A. ( (1997).). Viroid life: Perspectives on Nietzsche and the transhuman condition. London: Routledge.
  • Safranski, R. ( (2001).). Nietzsche: A philosophical biography. New York: Norton.
  • Sorgner, S. L. ( (2007).). Metaphysics without truth: On the importance of consistency within Nietzsche's philosophy. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press.
  • Vaihinger, H. ( (1924).). The philosophy of "as if." New York: Harcourt Brace.
  • Birx, H. James
    Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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