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Nietzsche’s Hammer

by Tim B-Gray

Friedrich Nietzsche is not known as a positive guy. Most accounts of him give us a tender and morose misanthrope consistently repulsed by everything he saw around him (unless he saw a mountain; he liked mountains). As a philosopher, he is widely seen as a destructive force, tearing down anything that gave off the slightest whiff of tradition or convention. There’s little doubt Nietzsche would be proud of this reputation; in his chest-puffing autobiography Ecce Homo, he described himself as “dynamite”. Whilst there is no shortage of evidence for Nietzsche’s demolition programme, it is on particularly clear show in 1888’s Twilight of the Idols. This work is a protracted assault on the philosophical canon that Nietzsche sees flowing forth from errors originally made by Plato. It is subtitled: How to Philosophize with a Hammer.

Nietzsche picks up a hammer to sound out the old philosophical idols. Finding them to be hollow, he takes a firm grip to flatten and smash, claw and bludgeon. But a hammer can also be a fairly useful tool for building new structures. In the last section of Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche’s hammer ‘speaks’. Presumably a little work weary, the hammer cannot muster many words and those which it can are not particularly original. The hammer borrows from a section of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘Of Old and New Law Tablets’, in which Nietzsche sets out his hopes for the future. It is to this more forward looking philosophy that we turn as we bring you another issue on the man behind the moustache. But don’t worry, if you came looking for explosions and tumbling towers, there’s plenty of that too. Life-denying art, objective history, free will, morality, and, of course, God, will all turn to dust before your very eyes.

What will happen after the dust has settled? Does Nietzsche give us a blueprint for constructing a new home? Can we use his hammer to build it? Well, sort of. Nietzsche refused to give his readers a manual for living. Not wanting a band of followers, he does not provide a new set of values, principles or rules for us to follow. But he does offer an ideal to reach for. Nietzsche’s ideal individual is someone who can build for themselves. We are supposed to look at the dark earth smouldering around us with a hungry smile. This wasteland is our great opportunity. Grasping it involves creating our own set of values, our own rules to follow, our own reasons for living.

Nietzsche also provides some guidance to those hoping to reach his ideal. It is of great importance for us to embrace life in all of its splendour, squalor and absurdity. As we shall see in our opening article, the idea of Eternal Recurrence could help here. Imagining your life on repeat forever, identical in every detail, can reveal how you really feel about it, and it may also motivate you to make changes to the way you live that will lead you to relish the prospect of this eternal repetition. In doing so, you may elevate yourself above the default human condition of existential misery to become an Übermensch. Whilst scholarly debate still rages as to whether Nietzsche would prefer East or West coast hip-hop, David Birch explores the Übermensch through the lyrics of Kanye West. With God dead, Nietzsche urges us to fill the vacancy. We must each become a god unto ourselves. Requiring strength, courage and creativity in abundance, this is no easy task. Our next three articles lay out some of the conditions that could help us achieve it. Finding an unexpected similarity between Plato and Nietzsche, we tune into the music and art that Nietzsche recommended for those wishing to ascend his treacherous mountain. Next, Paul Doolan looks at the creative approach to history and knowledge that is necessary for Nietzschean flourishing. We end our time with Nietzsche by following his wild gaze into a future where we will have no choice but to relinquish our fanciful notion of free will. Such a radical shift in thought may be just what is needed to nurture Friedrich’s philosophers of the future.

In fact, Nietzsche’s entire demolition programme is about clearing the ground for new ways of life to emerge. His philosophy is always reaching for a daring yet innocent joy that seems to have been absent in his own life. You’ll need to supply your own building materials, but Nietzsche’s hammer can be just as constructive as it is destructive.

Of course, this issue contains plenty to entertain and intrigue the philosophers of today as well. We wrestle with conflicts of moral duty, search for a way out of the academic coal mine, think about whether thoughts can be thought about if thinking is just brain activity, and find out what that stink is coming from the job market. We also contemplate infinity, twice. So whilst we’re not sure if our lives are set to eternally repeat, we’ll supply the reading if that does turn out to be the case.

• The Editors would like to extend their special thanks to Zoe Taylor and her students in the Art Department of Northampton University for providing lots of fantastic art for this issue.

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