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The Meaning of Life: Nietzsche – Twilight of the Idols (Professor Jay L. Garfield, Ph.D.)

I offer you this summation from Smith College / The Great Courses / Episode 28

As Friedrich Nietzsche’s incredible genius ran its course, he wrote his final book in 1888: Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer. 

Professor Garfield puts forth that Nietzsche reacted negatively to the reigning principles of his time—Modernism, a set of essentially utopian visions of human life and society and a belief in progress. It was against Modernism that Nietzsche aimed his hammer, and out of the scattered shards arose Nietzsche’s Postmodern critique. Why did he do this? Nietzsche was just that kind of guy. Professor Garfield says Nietzsche crystalized the Postmodern movement against Modernism. Modernism was taken rather as dogma among then European intellectuals, and for that matter, by a lot of people today. Talk to optimists. Talk to conservatives. Talk to devout churchgoers. Talk to rationalists. Talk to Plutonists. You will find Modernism’s assumptions intact. Modernism has a provenance beginning with the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

Here is the summation of Nietzsche’s objections according to Professor Garfield.

  1. Modernism valorizes (Garfield’s term) the integrity and transparency of the person, the individual—a single unit who knows herself, himself as the foundation of society. Nietzsche’s Postmodern questions are: Do we really know how we are? And is the individual really sovereign? Shades of questions being pondered today in light of our tottering tower of Babel—the pandemic, the social justice movement, and the tanking economy.
  2. Modernism valorizes progress—philosophy, science, economy, and politics as constantly progressive and improving through the generations. Nietzsche questions if there really is sustained progress. Is human history progressive?
  3. Liberty and democracy, and equality of human beings are valorized by Modernism. Nietzsche (playing the cynic) asks if liberty and democracy are self evidently good things? Garfield goes on with Nietzsche’s question: are individuals necessarily equal in any relevant sense?
  4. Science and reason as the foundations of human knowledge are valorized by Modernism. Religion is an interesting human option. Nietzsche questions the idea that reason and science are really foundational. Should we take these for granted as the grounds of our human and public life? Are religion and spirituality legitimate options, even in private?


Is it any wonder that Postmodernism brings us to the age of anxiety in spite of Walmart, the New York Stock exchange, the 4th of July, and mega churches? Is it any wonder that Nietzsche’s obituary of the divine and his sowing of doubt has  triggered the dread of existentialism, a later stage of the Postmodern? But existentialism does not leave us slowly twisting in the wind. It also promises the redemption by means of personal responsibility and it encourages us to create one’s own essence and meaning. Nor does Nietzsche leave us in the lurch. One of his mottos is “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Face into uncertainty and choose, choose, choose. And while you are at it, become the Ubermensch.  

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