WHAT ARE THEY AND WHY DO WE NEED THEM?
A good while ago, while residing in the lovely southern city of Savannah, Georgia. I was engaged in a healthy but intense debate with a friend over the ideas and work of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.
Most of us know of the subversive, combative German philosopher through his well-worn, somewhat platitudinous catchphrases such as:
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
Strong words, right?
Bold and inspiring, true?
Well, the thing about this particular encounter, the question being debated was Nietzsche’s worthiness to teach what he had taught.
“Why give credence to anything Nietzsche has to say,” my friend demanded, “especially when he clearly couldn’t practice what he was preaching?”
This was a valid point, of course.
“I mean,” my friend pressed, “how can Nietzsche be taken seriously with all his talk about becoming the Ubermensch, especially considering all the self-overcoming and indomitable will to power this type of being implied?”
I hesitated, so he continued, lambasting Nietzsche even more vigorously.
“Nietzsche was plagued with chronic pain, diseases like syphilis, and prone to suicidal ideation his entire life. He completely lost his sanity by the time he’d reached his mid-forties. How is this supposed to inspire confidence in his ideas?”
I would like to claim that I had fired back a lucid and profound rebuttal on the spot, winning the argument and vindicating the name and reputation of one of my philosophical idols. But that would be a lie.
Instead, I found myself conceding the point due to the sheer obviousness of its truth. Weak men don’t inspire strength, no matter how strongly they talk.
It wasn’t until much later that I uncovered something that not only repaired Nietzsche’s reputation in my eyes but now actually enhanced my respect for his life and work.
The question I had been pondering for some time was this.
Why was it that men like Friedrich Nietzsche and Niccolò Machiavelli never seemed to become reflections of their conceptions? They never really embodied either the Ubermensch or the Prince, in any meaningful way.
Nietzsche ended his years of restless travel and writing, during which time he had published Thus Spoke Zarathustra, by descending into a sudden, irreversible madness, after which, it is said, he never wrote another word.
Machiavelli, for his…