Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 12

(Read Part 11 of the series.)

Marx and Nietzsche


As noted earlier, Hegel’s philosophy was very influential with Marx, whose ideas are the basis of the intellectual foundation of Communism. In particular, he accepted Hegel’s concept of reality as an ongoing dialectic process, which could be monitored through a study of history, and which would continue to evolve until there were no further internal contradictions needing resolution. Not until this was achieved would true freedom and fulfilment be possible for man. He believed that the sort of society that would bring this about would be one in which individuals acted together rather than independently. Marx did not however agree with Hegel’s concept of a spiritual ‘Absolute’. Any form of religious belief or pursuit was seen as an attempt to escape from the meaninglessness that life had become.

He believed that matter, in the sense of man’s relation to it, was the driving force behind progress, and this meant that subjects such as the production and distribution of goods, and the economics of this, became extremely important. Thus he would have argued that socialism was simply the point that had been reached in the process of evolution, not something that he was specifically advocating, though his personal commitment to the ‘revolution’ is apparent in his writing. But all of this is a matter of politics and was advocated at the expense of ethical considerations.

So-called progress had produced a world of technology but man was being controlled by this instead of controlling it (and this is over 150 years ago!). He was being alienated from the true values of life, such as friendship and culture, and instead was being conned into desiring the products themselves. In this process, he felt that he himself was becoming dehumanised. Most of us probably now appreciate that cars, DVDs and mobile phones, are mere ‘things’ that can never bring happiness or fulfilment. And yet much of today’s generation seem to be trapped in a downward spiral of dependence upon the next fix from the purveyors of our material society.

Communism was inevitable as far as he was concerned and what any individual might want was not a consideration. It would represent the final synthesis of the then-current conflict between the working class, who actually produced the goods and the capitalist employers who owned the means of production, and everyone would then be happy. The means of production would be jointly owned and be used in everyone’s interest. For him, then, the purpose was clear and achievable – the bringing about of a better world. Unfortunately, as we all now know, these good ideas were unrealisable in practice and led only to far worse repression and lack of individual freedom. It just took a long time, and considerable suffering before this was finally accepted by most people.

Will to Power

Friedrich Nietzsche began his philosophical career as a disciple of Schopenhauer but did not share the latter’s pessimism and eventually diverged drastically when he decided that the world was the only reality. He claimed that there was no point at all in searching for some idealised spiritual truth since none existed. We should aim to realise our potential within this life since that is all there is. He saw that society was descending into nihilism and that the existing philosophies and religions were powerless to prevent it. A new ethos was needed. He was highly suspicious of absolutes with respect to truth or knowledge, suggesting that there are no real facts, only interpretations and his books tend to make suggestions (often in metaphorical form) rather than lay down rigorous principles.

He believed that the moral values that had been passed down to us from earlier generations were necessarily outdated. Man was continually evolving, with the stronger overcoming the weaker and it was necessary that our standards should evolve with us. Why pay any attention to outmoded religious principles and rules of conduct when we no longer believe in them? – God is dead. Since the strong overcome the weak as a natural part of progress, the strong should determine their own values and not be held back by any notion of equality with the mediocre masses. Meaning must be generated from within, not from some presumed external deity. Men are certainly not ‘equal’. We should be free to realise our full potential and become ‘supermen’. He valued passion, anger and adventure, advocated discipline and strength of will and regarded the compassion of Christianity with contempt. ‘Christianity’, he said, ‘breaks the spirit of the strong and poisons their noble instincts so that they perish through self-loathing.

He despised the Christian ideals of goodness, such as loving one’s fellow man, claiming that this was simply the outcome of fear and said that we should openly display the scorn that we really feel. His idealised man was a ruthless hero, seeking only more power, treating others as inferior, especially women, who should be treated as property and were only ‘for the recreation of the warrior’; we should ‘go to them with a whip’.

His ideas affected politics, in particular the Nationalism of Hitler, though Nietzsche himself did not support the principles of Nazism. He also saw art as being of great importance in transforming ourselves and the world. This inevitably influenced literature (e.g. Strindberg, Shaw, Mann, Hesse and Camus), music (e.g. Mahler and Richard Strauss – who named one of his most famous tone-poems after Nieztsche’s literary-philosophical work ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’) and other philosophers (e.g. Sartre). But the idea that only the happiness of a few really matters – those who happen to be strong in body and will or who happen to be born into rich and influential families – that these few are in some way superior, scarcely seems reasonable to the modern mind. This was the sort of society that existed in Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs, with an elite few living in luxury and the majority enslaved to support them. There are no doubt still some today who would want such a world… but only so long as they are amongst the rulers.

But Nietzsche was wide of the mark when he set his aims. His ideals were mistaken, participating in those aspects of man’s nature that are part of his limitations. He was seeking the empowerment of the ego, not the realisation of his true nature. His is the way of fear and led the man himself to insanity at the age of 44.

Read Part 13 of the series…


3 thoughts on “Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 12

  1. Hi Dennis

    “Unfortunately, as we all now know, these good ideas were unrealisable in practice and led only to far worse repression and lack of individual freedom. It just took a long time, and considerable suffering before this was finally accepted by most people.”

    Three thoughts:

    Firstly, I think that what Marx did not take into account was that in the transition stage of his “dictatorship of the proletariat”, some ‘elite’ would inevitably have power . . . and power corrupts . . . such is human nature. And from there institutions arise, which if they are not motivated by profit (as in capitalism) are instead motivated by political position and hierarchy. So the fault lies in the heart of men.

    Man should never have pursued scale. We should have remained in small communities, perhaps not as technologically advanced, but probably happier. However the pursuit of scale is inevitable given the greed of man.

    Secondly, from the very first days of the Russian revolution there was an onslaught from the west to reverse it. That inevitably would have led to a siege mentality and laid the seeds for suppression. And once that path is pursued, it is difficult to reverse.

    Thirdly, capitalism has inflicted – and continues to inflict – huge suffering, both domestically and overseas. Domestically, with the fall of communism, the elite no longer feels a need to pander to the masses, hence the gradual and ongoing repeal of social safety nets and growing inequality, This is just the beginning, and the failure of capitalism that Marx foresaw, still may come to fruition.

    And on the overseas front, we have the vicious suffering and murder (in the millions) inflicted on Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Cuba, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua (. . . ) in the name of democracy – but really because we wanted to have access to resources and markets, and were worried about the ‘threat of a good example’ and thence the domino principle. And more recently Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan.

    However despite this record over a long time (going back 500 years of empire and slaughter of natives), it is still not yet seen, known or finally accepted by most people.


    • Wise words, Venkat. You have clearly thought a great deal about this. I have to confess that I don’t know much about these areas at all. I was really just trying to fill in the gaps. I did buy ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, back when I was at university I think, but I think that was just because I was into Romantic music at the time. I didn’t read many pages…

      But your observations about human nature seem spot on, unfortunately.

      Best wishes,

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