The question of what meaning our lives might have was a major one for Nietzsche. While he is often mistaken for a nihilist, he was in fact quite the opposite. Indeed, much of his work is concerned with the problem of overcoming nihilism despite the slew of problems that drive people towards it.
Interpretations of how Nietzsche proposed to overcome nihilism can vary. From taking up the life of a guru to more brutish images of becoming an all-powerful Superman (Übermensch), the (in)famous philosopher’s ideas offer insight into how to find more meaning in our lives. Here’s how Nietzsche approached the problem of the meaning of life and how you can use the same approach.
God is dead and we have killed him
For Nietzsche, the problem begins with the death of God. We’ve discussed this concept before, but in brief, it is Nietzsche’s realization that an increasingly secular and scientific society can no longer turn to Christianity to find meaning. In ages past the meaning of everything was assured by God. Without the ability to turn to God, where could modern man find meaning?
Nietzsche found this concerning, as the typical person would be driven to nihilism without help. While mass movements would be able to provide another structure to find meaning in, Nietzsche, ever the individualist, rejected this notion as being a real solution. Instead, he offers us three solutions that we, as individuals, can try to use to find meaning in our post-God lives.
A cultural revolution
Nietzsche, who was an atheist, understood that religion was useful for providing meaning, community, and helping to deal with the problems of life. His first suggestion was to replace religion with philosophy, art, music, literature, theatre, and other parts of the humanities to provide similar benefits.
The void created by the death of God is a major one and one which we must strive to fill. The humanities offer us the ability to contextualize our sufferings, our efforts, and a chance to see our lives as not so different from those around us. They can offer insights into how we might tackle problems we all must face.
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However, it is important to not just study them as bone-dry academic subjects. They must be seen as tools for living. Don’t read history for facts; see it as a way to edify yourself. Tragic plays are not just for entertainment, they are to teach you how to see the beauty in sad events.
French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant holding the skull of Yorick during a scene from the Shakespeare play ‘Hamlet’, plays like Hamlet can help us deal with issues that religion used to tackle but can no longer handle. (Getty Images)
What if we don’t like the humanities? Or they don’t seem to help?
That’s fine. He has other ideas. No discussion of Nietzsche is complete without reference to the Übermensch. The Superman that creates their own meaning and values without reference to outside influences. Such an individual can overcome the problem of the meaning of life by simply inventing their own meaning and taking full responsibility for it. Nietzsche offered us a few examples of men who came close to being an Ubermensch; Jesus, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Buddha, and Goethe among them, but felt that none of them quite hit the mark.
The person who is able to actually able fully carry out this advice, it seems, it still yet to come. For those of us who remain typical humans, we can hope to find some meaning in looking towards the Superman and the evolution of humanity. “Man is something to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man?” Zarathustra asks the crowd of onlookers. He sees the psychological evolution of humanity as an ever-advancing story, one which we would do well to take part in.
In the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche makes reference to a tightrope walker to demonstrate the perilous journey of humanity from ape to Superman. (Getty Images)
The Übermensch seems like a little too much. What else is there?
If the Ubermensch isn’t something you value, there is another way to find solace more immediately. Loving your life, no matter what it has in it, is another method to find meaning. Amor Fati, the love of fate, is one of Nietzsche’s most interesting ideas and one which can offer us a great deal of solace when we most need it.
To love your fate is to know that everything that has happened in your life; the good, the bad, and the ugly, has contributed to who you are and what you are doing at this very moment. To embrace any part of life, says Nietzsche, thus necessitates that you embrace all of it. Trying to create yourself will lead to some failures, but embracing those failures alongside your successes can help re-spark a love of life and can help you see the meaning in even the worst moments.
In aThe Gay Science he reveals to us the goal of loving fate more directly. “I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful.Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! ….. And all in all and on the whole: someday I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”To say yes to life is one of the fundamentals of Nietzschian philosophy.
But, what can I do today?
At the most basic level, you can set goals for yourself. Perhaps you should try reading the classic novels or go to more Shakespeare in the park to better see how some of the greatest characters ever written handle the problems of life, death, meaning, madness, and love.
Perhaps you should evaluate what things you really value and what things you only say you like because society tells you to. Or, perhaps you should reconsider the parts of your life you don’t like and try to come and love them for the necessities they are. As, without them, you wouldn’t be you.
There is one thing we must warn you about, however.
Nietzsche was not a happy person. He hated his family, was eternally lonely, women rejected him, his books didn’t sell, he lost his mind, his sister hijacked his publishing rights, and then his ideas were taken up by a bunch of far-right ultra-nationalists who utterly missed the meaning of his individualistic philosophy. His ideas are not designed to make you “happy”, they are designed to help you find meaning in your life. For Nietzsche, these things are going to be at odds, since anything worth doing is going to involve some level of suffering. In The Gay Science, he even explains, “Only great pain is the ultimate liberator of the spirit….I doubt that such pain makes us ‘better’; but I know that it makes us more profound.”
If your goal is happiness in the utilitarian sense, he does have an alternative for you. “The Last Man” is Nietzsche’s caricature of the utilitarian ideal, a dull sort of person who lives an utterly boring life of maximized pleasure and minimized pain. However, since pain is required to do anything worth doing, the life of the Last Man is presented as a pathetic existence that leads to an utterly contented individual. This is a solution to nihilism, but not one that Nietzsche suggests you take.
The problem of how to live a life with meaning has puzzled philosophers since the days of ancient Greece, China, and India. For Nietzsche, the problem took on new meaning in the aftermath of the Enlightenment and the death of God. Even if you don’t agree with his ideas, his contemporary co-founder of existentialism didn’t, his offered solutions to the problem are still illumining for those of us who stay up at night looking for meaning in life.
For Nietzsche, the meaning of life is to live authentically and powerfully, creating one's own goals and values.
Nietzsche believes that one should not live by inflexible rules handed down by society. Rather, as an autonomous and self-determining being one would create their own ideas, standards, and goals by which to live and guide their lives.
Life is meaningful, they say, but its value is made by us in our minds, and subject to change over time. Landau argues that meaning is essentially a sense of worth which we may all derive in a different way—from relationships, creativity, accomplishment in a given field, or generosity, among other possibilities.
Nietzsche also states that, in order to master this form of living, one must learn to love even the most uncertain and undesirable conditions of life. Through embracing suffering, we become the captains of our being. “Before fate strikes us, we should guide it”.
Nietzsche's philosophy contemplates the meaning of values and their significance to human existence. Given that no absolute values exist, in Nietzsche's worldview, the evolution of values on earth must be measured by some other means. How then shall they be understood?
To love your fate is to know that everything that has happened in your life; the good, the bad, and the ugly, has contributed to who you are and what you are doing at this very moment. To embrace any part of life, says Nietzsche, thus necessitates that you embrace all of it.
Noun. 1. Nietzsche - influential German philosopher remembered for his concept of the superman and for his rejection of Christian values; considered, along with Kierkegaard, to be a founder of existentialism (1844-1900)
As an esoteric moralist, Nietzsche aims at freeing higher human beings from their false consciousness about morality (their false belief that this morality is good for them), not at a transformation of society at large.
Purpose: the existence of goals and aims. This is the belief that you are alive in order to do something. Think of purpose as your personal mission statement, such as “the purpose of my life is to share the secrets to happiness” or “I am here to spread love abundantly.” Significance: life's inherent value.
“The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.” ―Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“What is the meaning of life? That was all; a simple question — one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.”
The “ought” in “How ought we to live our lives” supplies the answer to the question. We ought to act better than we sometimes initially feel like acting. We ought to stop before we strike. We ought to seek answers before we condemn the actions of others.
Nietzsche posits “life as a means to knowledge” as an entirely new revaluation of knowledge. Rather than the parameters that was, up to now, prescribed upon knowledge, Nietzsche proposes that the tangible experience of life is in itself a vehicle and form of knowledge.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is known for his writings on good and evil, the end of religion in modern society and the concept of a "super-man."
Nietzsche's complete statement is: God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
So when we say someone is living well or that they have lived a good life, we may simply mean that they are a good person, someone who is courageous, honest, trustworthy, kind, selfless, generous, helpful, loyal, principled, and so on. They possess and practice many of the most important virtues.
Nietzsche teaches us to seek and find a 'harmonious whole' — where we can synthesize 'many voices in one nature' into a central and single point— a 'root force. ' So essentially, be a single person. And focus on your single, philosophical idea to share with others.
Nietzsche rejects the Christian God, he is not 'anti-religious. ' Rather, Nietzsche is a religious thinker precisely because he adopts Schopenhauer's analysis of religion as an intellectual construction that addresses the existential problems of pain and death, and gives authority to community-creating ethos.
There is will to power where there is life and even the strongest living things will risk their lives for more power. This suggests that the will to power is stronger than the will to survive. Schopenhauer's will to live (Wille zum Leben) thus became a subsidiary to the will to power, which is the stronger will.
Power of will
In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche criticizes the concept of free will both negatively and positively. He calls it a folly resulting from extravagant pride of man; and calls the idea a crass stupidity.
Nietzsche, translated here by Daniel Pellerin, writes: Any human being who does not wish to be part of the masses need only stop making things easy for himself. Let him follow his conscience, which calls out to him: “Be yourself! All that you are now doing, thinking, desiring, all that is not you.”
“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” As you can probably imagine, philosophers have spent countless hours considering the concept of meaning, as well as the “meaning of meaning.”
In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, advanced alien beings create a supercomputer, called Deep Thought, to figure out the answer to the so-called Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. After calculating for 7.5-million years, Deep Thought determined the answer was the number 42.
So when you're answering the question of your life's purpose, you are really answering: Why do you exist? And you have to decide your way and actively give an answer to that question. As the quote from Ken Hudgins suggests: The purpose of life is to live a life on purpose. And this is totally up to you.
The three meanings of meaning in life: Distinguishing coherence, purpose, and significance.
- “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. ...
- “Life has no meaning. ...
- “Learn to light a candle in the darkest moments of someone's life. ...
- “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” ...
- “In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.
When you are dwelling on something you are missing everything that is going on right in front of you. Life is calling you forward. Keep your head up and keep moving. Wherever life takes you remember that it's not what you do or how much money you make but who you are and what you stand for.
What is the meaning of life that was all a simple question one that tended to close in on one with years the great revelation had never come?
That was all- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”
Death is not mere absence of life, and eing dead is not the same as being nonliving. Life and death are like green and red: you can't be both, but you can be neither. So we know that death is the end of life.
It is normal and healthy to ask oneself big questions about life and meaning. However, these large questions will not usually have simple answers, and they will vary widely from one person to the next. For this reason, there is generally no easy way to resolve an existential crisis but by navigating through it.
The Greek philosopher, Socrates, said that the unexamined life is not worth living. We should not simply follow the crowd and believe what everyone around us believes. We should subject belief to critical examination.
Nihilism has existed in one form or another for hundreds of years, but is usually associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher (and pessimist of choice for high school kids with undercuts) who proposed that existence is meaningless, moral codes worthless, and God is dead.
The concept “truth” is absurd. Thus, Nietzsche's idea is that truth is something like a circular form of squares, namely, a quality that according to the nature of the thing to which it ostensibly applies cannot be fulfilled.
Truth is not “out there” waiting to be “found out” and “discovered,” but “something that must bemade,” Nietzsche says, since truth requires constructed objects. Constructing objects establishes truth because objects constitute the truth conditions of propositions.