Friedrich Nietzsche: Third Horseman of the Apocalypse

This week we come to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. I’ve been titled this blog, “Friedrich Nietzsche: Third Horsemen of the Apocalypse” because Nietzsche is often referred to with Darwin, Marx, and Freud, as one of four figures most responsible for destroying the optimistic rationalism of the Enlightenment. The results left the intelligentsia with a materialist, power-oriented view of human nature and human society, a dark view of human nature ultimately hostile to the democratic ideals that gave birth to the United States of America and the free nations of the world.

For those disinclined to see God at work in evolution, evolutionarily theory opened up a way to see the human being as not created by God, not made in the image of God, not gifted with the rationality of God, but as an animal struggling for survival. Marx extended the vision of human beings and human society as simply the result of materialistic forces into the area of politics, with dialectical materialism as the force behind the inevitable emergence of the proletariat and a communist form of economic and social organization. Freud, who we will look at in a later blog, undermined the notion that human beings are rational, seeing human intellect as a front for deeper, and often dark, psychological forces.


Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is a 19th century figure, whose influence has been felt powerfully in the 20th and 21st centuries. Nietzsche was born into a Christian household. His father was a Lutheran minister. Unfortunately, his father died when he was only five years old, leaving him to be raised by the women in the family. Throughout his life, he was attracted to strong male figures, such as Wagner, who could provide for him the father that he was deprived of in early life. This event left him a perennial loner who often felt as if he did not belong.

There is no question but what Nietzsche was brilliant. There’s also no question but what he was increasingly frail, nervous, overly-sensitive, and ultimately mentally unbalanced. He had a sensitivity that drove him, as it drives many today, to see the faults and failures of others and of society, without the ability to sympathize with human frailty and limitations, even gross misbehavior.  Personally, he was kind in the extreme, and neighbors in Italy, where he sometimes lived, called him “the Little Saint.”

In his childhood and early teenage years, he was exceedingly religious, and his mother hoped that he would follow his father into the ministry. Around the age of eighteen, however, he lost his Christian faith. This is an important fact, because his rigidly logical and brilliant mind forced him to face the consequences of his loss of faith. Unlike others, he did not assume or quietly accept those portions of Christian faith and morality, he rejected Christian faith and morals wholesale..

Philosophers of the Enlightenment often rejected Christian faith in the sense of the existence of miracles, the authority of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, and other doctrines, but continued to believe in God, the God of Deism, in an orderly rational universe that had produced an orderly rational human being, and in a rational human society, governed by orderly moral laws that might be discovered by reason. This vision leads directly to the notion that human beings can be trusted to govern themselves and will in the end discover the most appropriate social organization and laws for a society. With Nietzsche, this vision reaches a philosophical endpoint.

The extent of his alienation from the faith of his childhood is vividly demonstrated by his friendship with Wagner. Early in his life, while a student Leipzig, nature met Richard Wagner and became a close acquaintance. Wagner was the father figure for whom Nietzsche longed. Their friendship lasted into the mid-1870s, but ended when Wagner returned to Christian faith and began to express admiration for Christian tradition and virtues in his work. Nietzsche immediately broke off at the friendship from which it never recovered. Nietzsche’s departure from his Christian faith was irrevocable, into the end of his days he rejected the Christian tradition. He expressly told his sister that he did not want to be buried in a Christian funeral.

Nietzsche as a Political Thinker

Nietzsche has been an important influence on 20th century, and early 21st-century philosophy. The entire movement toward what we today called “deconstructionism,” or “post-modernism,” is a fruit of Nietzsche’s skepticism toward faith, morals, and traditional notions of social order. Because of the association of Nietzsche’s thought with the thought of the Nazis in Germany prior to and during World War II, many philosophers have tried to defend Nietzsche from any association with political philosophy, and particularly with any kind of association with a political philosophy that might be associated with Nazism.

These philosophers have often taken the position that Nietzsche was not a political philosopher and should not be understood as giving political advice. Philosophically, they make a good case in favor of their view. However, this dispute among philosophers does not really matter in the attempt to outline Nietzsche’s influence in political thinking. Whatever Nietzsche’s intentions, the fact is he’s been influential in the thinking and behavior of politicians. This particular blog focuses on those aspects of Nietzsche’s thought that undermine confidence in democracy and which have influenced the course of 20th century and now 21st Century politics.

God is Dead

Interestingly enough, I think the place to begin is with Nietzsche’s famous observation, “God is dead”. [1] One might say that all of Nietzsche’s philosophy is a working out of his loss of religious faith. In the ancient world, societies often felt that their civilizations were founded by the gods, and their system of government and/or royalty were descendants of the god’s. The imperial system of Japan as it existed at the end of the Second World War was probably the last of these societies. In western Europe, and especially in England in the United States, even after the Enlightenment, natural law theory, and the many connections between natural law theory and religious faith, continued to influence the legal order of society. It might be the Christian God, the Deist God of the Enlightenment; or in the Muslim world today, it might even be Allah; but in any case, somehow the social order  and law was a reflection of a divine order embedded in the universe.

Nietzsche clearly understood that the phrase “God is dead” meant that the social order of Europe had no stable foundation. In other words, if the Christian God is dead, then European society, culture, morals, law, even such mundane matters as the vast majority of its holiday’s had no foundation. Like many people today, Nietzsche was appalled by the decadence of European Christianity and its many compromises with power, economic and political.

Nietzsche believed that something like the pagan society of the ancient world, which he admired from his philological studies, was a possible replacement for the Christian basis of Western society. Much of Nietzsche’s thought involves the creation of a kind of “alternative mythology” upon which such a revitalized European society might be based. He did not believe that such a society would be easily achieved, and felt that the end of the Christian era would be, as it has been, filled with social decay, violence terror, and revolution. It is also clear that he did not believe it was possible to return to the social structures of the ancient world.

The Hermeneutic of Suspicion

Nietzsche also saw that the loss of religious faith had another consequence: the death of God meant the death of the ideal of truth as absolute certainty and the religious quest for absolute truth. The death of God resulted in Nietzsche’s belief that all truth claims were illusions, falsehoods that needed to be unmasked. He began his analysis with religion but extended it to science and other forms of truth seeking. For Nietzsche, not only the achievements of religion, but of science, literature, culture, metaphysics, morals and morality, all of previous philosophy were illusory. In particular, Kant and Hegel, the giants of German philosophy were simply procrastinators,” dupes of a dying ideal,” who wove vast systems of words that hid the death of God, the death of metaphysics, the death traditional morals, and the death of traditional society based upon the illusion of absolute reason. There is no final truth, “and the sincere person realizes he always lies.” In the end, Nietzsche is an absolute nihilist.

Materialism, Evolution and the Will to Power

Nietzsche is a radical materialist. His concept of the “Will to Power” is a result of his commitment to a fully materialistic version of evolutionary thought that is central to his thought. When Nietzsche gave up religious faith, he gave up any notion of intellectual or spiritual forces as guiding human history. In his theory, which denies wisdom and truth as stable categories (because they are illusory), human will becomes primary. Nietzsche believed that the implications of Darwinism, combined with Newtonian mechanism, was not the Deism of Newton and others, but instead what I will call “Evolutionary Materialism.” Unlike Darwin who sees the fundamental driving power of evolution as the adaptive struggle for survival, Nietzsche sees the Will to Power as the fundamental driving force of evolution, of the development of human society, and of human progress.

The Will to Power, the will to dominate, to control, and to create, is the ultimate driving force of evolutionarily history. Whereas Darwinian evolutionary theory posits that the driving force of evolution is the adaptation of individuals to external circumstances, that is to say the world as it is, for Nietzsche the driving force of evolution is the desire for power. Nietzsche sometimes describes the Will to Power in almost demonic terms, for the Will to Power is the will to appropriate, injure, destroy, conquer, overcome, eliminate weak opposition, impose one’s own will, and to form the future in accordance with one’s own desires.

Human Equality vs. the Overman

The final characteristic of Nietzsche’s thought that I want to discuss has to do with his radical individualism and denial of a common humanity, which is central to democratic societies. Nietzsche conceives of human beings as isolated foci of power, connected to others only by the will to power. [2] His concept of the “Over-Man” or “Superman” as it is sometimes translated illustrates another feature of his thought: not only are human beings fundamentally isolated units, but they are not equal by any means. There are different types of men, some lower and some higher. Nietzsche thought of himself, the isolated sufferer who has pierced through all the illusions of human society, as the supreme embodiment of the aristocracy of the mind.

The “Over-Human” is one who has transcended the illusions of morality and embraced the nihilistic core of the human soul, the Will to Power. He or she understands that the Will to Power is the ultimate and essential driving force in history. Such a person is filled with a life-force that demands that it achieve that which it wills. There’s no doubt but what Nietzsche himself saw this in philosophical, moral, and aesthetic terms. Nietzsche’s defenders are correct that to the gentle philosopher, the Over-Human was not a beast trying to gain political power at all costs. The Over-Human was a person like Nietzsche who had seen the implications of modern science and modern philosophy, with its destructive power for all traditional society, had reached the end of faith, and embraced the task of reconstructing that society, driven by a desire for success (power) in reconstructing Western Civilization. However, most people are not at philosophers or philologists in love with words or classical culture.

The notion of the Over-Human, implies power over others and, cannot help but, in the hands of political types, result in some kind of despotism, for in their hands power is everything and the power they desire is political and economic. In this sense, I do not think that Nietzsche or Nietzscheans can escape the complaint of Christians and others that their philosophy is dangerously inclined towards totalitarianism when applied to human affairs by practical persons of aspirations to power. When the loner Adolph Hitler was attracted to Nietzsche’s thought as supportive of his racial and totalitarian theories, whether Nietzsche or Nietzscheans like it or not there was an is a reasonable ground for the attraction.


In an earlier Blog entitled, “Are We at the End of a Nietzschean Age?” I concluded that Nietzsche’s program of seeing all truth claims as simple bids for power finds its current home in deconstructive social theory. Nietzsche effectively “deconstructed” the foundations of Enlightenment liberalism, reducing all truth claims, all moral claims, and all aesthetic claims to bids for power. Nietzsche’s hostility towards Christianity as a “slave religion,” reflecting the attempt the weak to gain power over the strong, what in this blog I call the Over-Human, who has the vitality to impose his or her will on others) undermines the fundamental common humanity upon which republican democracies rely. In practice, the results of Nietzschean thought has inevitably been some kind of totalitarianism, whether embodied in physical violence or deceit. [3] This Nietzschean notion of the will to power embeds in contemporary politics an innate tenancy towards physical or moral violence. [4]

Finally, Nietzsche’s thought is hostile to a concept of “servant leadership” so desperately needed in contemporary politics. I stand by this earlier evaluation of this thought and the dead end it has created in American politics. The antics of the “Super-People” who dominate the social, economic and political thought of America and the West today, with their insatiable and morally bankrupt search for power, is the end of the line of thinking that Nietzsche embodies.

We will return to Nietzsche in the future. I was a philosophy major in undergraduate school, and no one was more instrumental in my thinking the Nietzsche. In the end, I became a Christian and abandoned this position. Against the Will to Power, I would substitute the notion of a society built on the slow progressive embodiment of wisdom and love in human history and the traditions of human society. Nevertheless, as pointed out over and over again in this blog, at any given point in history we cannot see everything. Nietzsche saw the implications of materialism and Darwinian evolution and applied his perception to philosophy, morality, culture, and aesthetics. In this way he participated in the great flow of history. A future political philosophy cannot ignore his achievements.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Unlike most of the blogs in this series, I am not able to extensively footnote this blog. My library is filled with volumes by and about Nietzsche. I have relied upon George A. Morgan, What Nietzsche Means (New York, NY: Harper & Row1941) which is a sympathetic look at his thought and Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York, NY: Random House, 1966) and Twilight of the Idols and Anti-Christ tr. R. J. Hollingdale (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1968). Professor Morgan would not agree with my conclusions. I have read extensively on Nietzsche and was deeply impacted by this thought as an undergraduate.

[2] As in so many areas, Nietzsche takes to an extreme the materialistic and radically individualistic implications of Enlightenment thought. In my view, when he does so, he simply illustrates the inadequacy of such a view. The world and human beings are not characterized by radical disconnectedness but by radical universal connectedness.

[3] See, John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory 2nd ed. London, UK: Blackwell, 2006). Milbank would not agree with all my conclusions, nor I with his. Milbank believes, as do I, that Nietzschean nihilism leads to some form of totalitarianism not much different than national socialism. Unfortunately, we see elements of this kind of government in American and Western European society. In my view, contemporary Communist China is a national socialist state masquerading as a communist state. Modern Russia under Putin is clearly a kind of national socialist state, in which very wealthy oligarchs and the state control every element of human life.

[4] Id, at xiii, and chapter 10, “Ontological Violence or the Postmodern Problematic” pp. 278-326